As international outrage spreads at the Israeli elite commando attack on an unarmed humanitarian convey in the middle of the night on international waters, Israel is desperately trying to rebrand the incident as one of self-defence. It is nothing new for Israel, and other aggressing powers, to smear their victims as perpetrators. Afterall, unjustifiable murder is too jarring to stomach.
Yet, Amnesty International released a statement about Israel’s excessive use of force, further stating that Israel’s version of events begs credibility. Former Archbishop Desmond Tutu proclaimed the actions of Israel as “completely inexcusable”. According to Craig Murray, specialist on maritime law, “To attack a foreign flagged vessel in international waters is illegal.”
Deported activists tell a horrifying story of the use of electric shock, live ammunition, smoke bombs, gas canisters, beatings, and seizure of all evidence on cameras. Greek activist Michalis Grigoropoulos said, "They took us hostage, pointing guns at our heads…There was absolutely nothing we could do." A Turkish woman, with her 1 year old baby, recalls “The ship turned into a lake of blood.”
Israeli-Arab Knesset member Hanin Zoabi, who was on board, demanded an international inquiry: “It was clear from size of force that boarded ship that purpose was not to stop sail, but to cause largest number of fatalities to prevent future initiatives.” In contradiction of the carefully managed public relations campaign, a top Israeli Navy commander brags to the Jerusalem Post that “We boarded the ship and were attacked as if it was a war.” The names of the 10-19 dead, 60-80 injured, and hundreds detained have yet to be released.
Zoabi further stated that the passengers made clear they were non-confrontational, substantiated by live footage of a white flag raised shortly after the armed commandos descended from helicopters. Upon release from Israeli custody, two German parliamentarians also denied that the activists provoked the violence, though some had tried to stop the armed onslaught by using two wooden sticks. If that were not enough, custom officials in Greece confirmed that the boats were screened prior to departure and no weapons were aboard.
Even before the events of May 31, the Israeli government had publically warned that the Flotilla would be intercepted, even though the convoy would be entering from international waters in the Mediterranean and not from Israeli territory. An extensive May 25 article in the Jerusalem Post describes a campaign between the media, military, and government officials to “coordinate efforts to stop the flotilla and manage the potential media fallout.”
The Gaza Freedom Flotilla convoy was comprised of nine ships and 700 activists, politicians, journalists, Nobel laureates, and aid workers from 40 countries. An initiative that took almost two years of grassroots organization, they were bringing 10,000 tons of medical and humanitarian aid including toys, wheelchairs, construction supplies, paper, food, and medicines for Gaza’s 1.5 million besieged residents.
Since 2007, Israel has imposed a tight blockade on Gaza: maintaining control of airspace, waters, and land crossings; disallowing residents to leave without permits; and prohibition on imports and exports including food, fuel, and medical supplies. The result has been catastrophic: 70% of Gazans live on under $1 a day, 60% have no daily access to water, only 23 of 3,900 industrial enterprises are operational. This constitutes collective punishment of an entire civilian population and condemns them to an open-air prison, leading the UN to call the siege ‘medieval’.
One of the justifications for the siege is the violence inflicted by Palestinian fighters. Palestinians live under occupation and lack any effective military capabilities. According to UN statistics, from 2000-2008, the Israeli military killed 2677 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. In the same period, 11 Israelis were killed by Palestinian home-made rockets. During the bombings of Gaza in 2008-2009, over 1400 Palestinians and five Israelis were killed. While these numbers are clearly asymmetrical, a focus on violence alone obscures the reality of the occupation of Palestine since 1948. UN Special Rapporteur John Dugard has stated that acts committed against a military occupation may not be justifiable but must be understood not as mindless acts of terror but as “a painful but inevitable consequence of colonialism, apartheid or occupation."
Though Stephen Harper shamelessly rolled out the red carpet for Benjamin Netanyahu; UN Special Rapporteur Richard Falk has called on the world to act: “It is essential that those Israelis responsible for this lawless and murderous behavior, including political leaders who issued the orders, be held criminally accountable for their wrongful acts. It is time to insist on the end of the blockade of Gaza. The worldwide campaign of boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel is now a moral and political imperative.”
Standing up to one of the worlds most powerful state’s – who possesses nuclear capabilities, one of the largest militaries, has repeatedly rebuked international law, and continues an immoral occupation – hundreds of thousands of people have spilled onto the streets in every continent. Spain, Sweden, Greece, Jordan, Egypt, and Turkey have recalled their ambassadors to Israel. Perhaps most poignantly, human rights activists in South Africa called the deadly raid ‘Israel’s Sharpeville’ with a bold reminder that “the desperation of the oppressor is an indication of the beginning of freedom for the oppressed.”
Harsha Walia is a South Asian activist and writer, formally trained in the law, who is based in Vancouver, Canada. This article originally appeared as an op-ed in the major daily Vancouver Sun.