An overview of the flotilla initiative, the raid and its consequences, by Pamela Olson:
A flotilla of six ships carrying nearly 700 people from 40 countries set sail for Gaza last month to challenge the siege on the Gaza Strip imposed by Israel and Egypt. The passengers included aid workers, medics, members of the European Parliament, journalists, scholars, Nobel Peace Prize winner Mairead McGuire of Ireland, retired American Colonel Ann Wright, former Ambassador Edward Peck (who also served as deputy director of President Reagan’s White House Task Force on Terrorism), bestselling Swedish novelist Henning Mankell, and Joe Meadors, a survivor of Israel’s 1967 attack on the American intelligence ship, the USS Liberty.
The initiative took two years of organizing sponsored in part by Ireland, Greece, Malaysia, and a Turkish humanitarian organization called IHH. The tactical aim was to bring 10,000 tons of desperately-needed aid, including toys, electric wheelchairs, cement, notebooks, food, medicine, and medical devices, to the people of Gaza.
The strategic aim was to bring international attention to the blockade and help end it once and for all. The embargo began after Hamas won Parliamentary elections in January 2006. It was tightened when Hamas captured an Israeli soldier named Gilad Shalit in June 2006 to use as a bargaining chip to try and release some of the thousands of Palestinians held in Israeli jails, many of them children and a large percentage held without trial. The blockade reached devastating proportions in mid-2007 when Hamas took over the Gaza Strip by force of arms to pre-empt an attempted Fatah coup allegedly sponsored by the American government.
The aim of the embargo is to prevent weapons smuggling and pressure the people of Gaza to oust Hamas. It has banned virtually all exports from Gaza, destroyed the profitability of Gaza’s agriculture, wiped out tens of thousands of jobs, shut down 95% of Gaza’s industries, left more than 80% of the population dependent on food aid, prevented Gaza’s fishermen from traveling more than three miles from the coast, and caused poverty and child malnutrition to skyrocket. It has trapped the vast majority of Gazans in the Strip with vanishingly few allowed to leave, even for desperately-needed medical care or to use scholarships won abroad. At least 28 have died for lack of access to medical treatment.
The arbitrary rules of the blockade have at various times—sometimes for years—prevented Gazans from importing cilantro, chocolate, dried fruit, fresh meat, notebooks, clothes, toys, fishing nets and ropes, chicks, hatcheries, musical instruments, clothing, shoes, and tea. It has also banned cement, making it impossible to rebuild the thousands of homes and schools damaged or destroyed by Israel’s three-week bombing campaign in early 2009, which killed 1,400 Gazans, mostly civilians, including more than 300 children, and devastated their infrastructure. (Since the blockade began, rockets from the Gaza Strip have killed eight Israelis.)
The blockade is a clear act of collective punishment, which is illegal under international law. And it has succeeded in neither turning Gazans against Hamas nor stopping Hamas from acquiring weapons. It has, in fact, led to the widening of a network of smuggling tunnels between Egypt and Gaza, in which goods (and presumably weapons) flow unchecked. Hamas levies taxes on these over-priced goods, and that along with the anger at Israel engendered by the blockade has only made Hamas stronger. The UN has called the siege ‘medieval’ and US Congressman Brian Baird has called for a modern-day ‘Berlin Airlift’ to lift the siege. Yet the governments of the world, led by the US, have been mostly silent about the illegal collective punishment of 1.5 million people, half of them children.
Civil society bravely stepped in to fill the void, to try to break the blockade with their own boats and bodies. The Israeli government called the Gaza Freedom Flotilla a “provocation.” Filmmaker Iara Lee, who was on board one of the boats, responded that it was a provocation “in the sense that civil rights protesters in the American south who sat at segregated lunch counters represented a provocation to segregationists… Under an illegal siege, the delivery of aid to civilians is a prohibited act; the intent of our humanitarian convoy was to violate this unjust prohibition.”
As the boats neared the eastern Mediterranean, the Israeli government was left to strategize about how to meet this challenge. Already nine ships had attempted to break the siege, and five were quietly allowed through. But after Israel’s war in early 2000, the next four ships were stopped forcibly, one of them rammed and almost sunk. Instead of deterring the next aid convoy, it tripled everyone’s resolve. The current convoy, the most ambitious of all, was the result. And more were scheduled afterwards, including a boat packed with European Jews who opposed Israel’s blockade, who took the phrase “never again” both seriously and universally.
Live video feeds showed people talking and joking on the deck of one of the ships, eating and praying, knowing they were going into danger, though I doubt they knew how much. They knew the Israeli government would react, but they expected more of what had gone on before—being rammed, detained, beaten. Not nearly enough to stop many good of people from following their conscience.
They were surprised, though, when the Israeli army engaged them more quickly than they anticipated. Soldiers demanded that they turn back or follow them into the Israeli port of Ashdod where the Israeli government would inspect the aid and allow in what it deemed appropriate. Considering the whole point of the flotilla was challenging Israel’s control over access to Gaza, this was a non-offer—more a request of surrender. The flotilla refused, believing that in the morning they would, at worst, be rammed, detained, beaten. It would be a spectacle, but not much of one. The boarding of the other boats and beating and detention of activists had hardly been covered in the news at all. At best, they would float past the Israeli navy while they watched helplessly, unwilling to stop a humanitarian effort by force and thus turn it into a news spectacle and a PR disaster. The American media had ignored all previous attempts to break the Gaza siege, and a few tons of concrete (which any Gazans who could afford it were getting through the tunnels anyway) wasn’t really a serious threat to national security. The passengers on the flotilla would enjoy the legendary hospitality of Gaza, the people of Gaza, including hundreds of children maimed by Israel’s bombing campaigns, would get much-needed help and moral support, and it would most likely be quietly ignored by the world at large. Still, Israel would have a harder time justifying its next attack on what would undoubtedly be an even bigger flotilla of siege-breakers. Israel’s carefully-constructed justifications might collapse, and with it the siege itself. Which Israel, against all logic and evidence, would view as a catastrophic defeat.
It is difficult for most Americans to grasp the utter paranoia, often to the point of dangerous delusion, that most Israelis live under (with many spirited exceptions). As Anshel Pfeffer wrote in Israel’s Haaretz newspaper, “The feeling of helplessness of a poor lonely victim, confronting the rage of a lynch mob and frantically realizing that these are his last moments, accurately reflect the current psychosis of the majority of the Israeli public.” Most Israelis either refuse or are unable to see their own gross violations of international law or the suffering they cause. They only see an Arab world bent on annihilating them and an international community trying to delegitimize them. It doesn’t seem to register that in 2002, the entire Arab League pledged peace and recognition of Israel if it obeyed international law and withdrew from territories occupied since 1967.
And it doesn’t seem to register that when Europeans condemn illegal blockades that lead to humanitarian crises, this is not equivalent to wishing for Israel’s destruction. It’s true, though, that international law is a slippery slope. A UN resolution brought Israel into existence, but another UN resolution said the Palestinian refugees expelled from their homes in 1948 had a right to return. After endorsing the resolution that brought them into being, Israel has resisted every subsequent effort by the international community to bring some balance back to the equation—to base a resolution on the human rights of all, not the special rights of some.
Of course, breaking international law is also a slippery slope. First you break it with some refugees. Then the refugees organize to resist. So you break it in Lebanon for eighteen years. Then you wind up with Hezbollah. Then you break it to fight Hezbollah, killing thousands of civilians along the way. And Hezbollah gets stronger. Meanwhile, you break it with illegal settlements in the West Bank. Then, to shore up that violation, you break it with a Wall that steals farmers’ land to make settlements more wealthy and secure. Farmers and their supporters organize to resist.
You must break them. Tear gas isn’t enough. Beatings and arrests aren’t enough. So you start shooting to kill. The Economist summed it up: “Israel is caught in a vicious circle. The more its hawks think the outside world will always hate it, the more it tends to shoot opponents first and ask questions later, and the more it finds that the world is indeed full of enemies.” With each violation, Israel paints itself further into a corner, which forces it to slip further into depravity. Gradually, by degrees, so that most of Israeli society doesn’t notice, each new violation is normalized, and each new act of resistance to Israel’s violations is touted as a “threat to Israel’s existence.”
The end result is a state where Gazans eating chocolate is a danger to Israeli security and boats carrying humanitarian supplies are tools of Israel’s destruction. And anyone who believes, however absurdly, that he is facing imminent destruction believes he is justified in fighting back by any means necessary.
So there was no morning for the Gaza Freedom Flotilla. In the pre-dawn hours of May 31, while most of the activists were sleeping, Israeli commandos shot concussion grenades and rubber bullets (and possibly live ammunition) at the biggest boat, then abseiled from helicopters onto the deck to try and commandeer the vessel. They were in international waters, approximately 70 miles from the coast, where Israel had no jurisdiction. It was therefore an illegal act of piracy.
The passengers, armed with sticks they had pried off ship railings and deck chairs, acted to protect their ship. Perhaps they thought the concussion grenades being thrown at them were live, the rubber-coated steel bullets real. Certainly when I was struck with a concussion grenade at a non-violent protest in the West Bank in 2005, I was terrified it might kill, burn, or maim me. And rubber-coated steel bullets, which can sound terrifyingly real to someone who’s not used to them, have been known to kill on numerous occasions, especially when fired from close range. Perhaps they thought the vaunted Israeli army would fight fair, would know how to deal with a crowd wielding sticks. Perhaps they expected nothing more than tasers, beatings, tear gas—normal crowd dispersal methods.
And they were willing to endure this to try to protect their ship in the middle of the night in waters where Israeli commandos had no legal jurisdiction. Or perhaps, as the Israelis allege, they simply rushed armed commandos, unprovoked, armed only with whatever tools they could find around the ship, hungry for a bloodthirsty, premeditated lynch. This doesn’t strike me as very plausible, particularly now that profiles of the victims are beginning to emerge. Most are middle-aged family men, one a 19-year-old American citizen of Turkish origin who looks younger than his years. Autopsies have revealed that most were shot multiple times, except one who was shot in the forehead. Five of the dead were shot in the back or the back of the head. We’ll know more when and if full details come to light.
So far what we do know is that Israel forcibly boarded a civilian boat not with police but with commando units trained to kill. Not in broad daylight, where much confusion and terror could have been avoided, but in the dead of night. Not with prior warning and clear intentions but with a hail of rubber bullets and concussion grenades. Not in Israeli or even Gazan but in international waters. And in the end, they killed nine civilians and wounded dozens more. Nine civilians: More than the total number of Israelis killed by Gaza’s rocket fire during the entire three-year-plus blockade.
Whether this was a “trigger-happy display of incompetence or an attempt at deterrence that spun out of control,” one would expect a government to express deep regret after such a badly mishandled operation, to apologize profusely to the families and the home countries of the slain, to contain the fallout as much as possible by releasing all footage (which will show the Israeli soldiers to be innocent if they are telling the truth) and opening the incident to a quick and thorough international investigation (which even a group of top Israeli Naval reserves officers has called for). Instead, we got the opposite.
The activists who survived the assault were arrested by Israel, roughed up and humiliated, their film and videos confiscated. Israel released only heavily-edited clips of what happened that night, and so far the testimonies of the survivors have been mostly kept out of the mainstream discourse. There was no apology. And they’ve refused to release the captured footage or cooperate with an international investigation. They’ve insinuated that IHH, a Turkish humanitarian organization, is linked with terrorism, although Israel is the only country in the world that believes this. They claimed some on board had ties to Al Qaeda, then quickly retracted it when confronted by journalists asking for evidence.
They released an apparently-doctored audio tract that tried to make it sound like one of the ship’s passengers responded to the Israeli Navy’s hail with anti-Semitic, pro-9/11 nonsense. And they released a video by Caroline Glick, the Deputy Managing Editor of the Jerusalem Post who served as assistant foreign policy adviser to Netanyahu in 1997-98, in which Jewish Israelis portrayed Arabs as grotesque stereotypes and mocked the dead and injured. “This was not the ‘Love Boat,’” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced in what can only be described as history’s most tone-deaf attempt at humor. “It was a hate boat.” Israeli spokesman Mark Regev assured the BBC the slain Turkish aid workers were “dead-set on confrontation.”
As if 600 civilians, including women and children, fancied their chances against the Israeli army. As if Ambassador Peck and Colonel Wright, with 60 years of government service between them, were simply useful idiots unknowingly undertaking a terrorist mission along with a diabolical plan to lure Israeli commandos on board ships in order to beat them with sticks. But why would the Israeli army and government engage in something so outrageous, in full view of journalists and internationals, including European members of Parliament, and then blatantly lie about several aspects of it? Well, it wasn’t the first, and likely won’t be the last, incident where unarmed aid workers, journalists, and activists have been attacked, maimed, and killed by Israel under questionable circumstances.
Why did they bulldoze Rachel Corrie in full view of international activists? Why did they bomb UN buildings full of civilians in Gaza and Lebanon? Why did they destroy an American school in Gaza? Why did they attack the USS Liberty in 1967, killing 34 US servicemen? Why did they shoot out the eye of a young American woman in the West Bank just hours after the bungled Mavi Marmara raid? And why did they get away with it?
The last is a question for another day. But the fact is, they did get away with it. All of it. And they are managing the news cycle yet again with every expectation that no one of consequence will care about nine dead Turks by next month. “This is not surprising,” wrote Israeli professor Ilan Pappé. “The Barak-Netanyahu-Avigdor Lieberman government does not know any other way of responding to the reality in Palestine and Israel. The use of brutal force to impose your will and a hectic propaganda machine that describes it as self-defense, while demonizing the half-starved people in Gaza and those who come to their aid as terrorists, is the only possible course for these politicians. The terrible consequences in human death and suffering of this determination do not concern them, nor does international condemnation.”
It all sounds preposterous. Because it is. And it’s time the madness stopped. Israel must be held accountable. Words like ‘justice’ and ‘international law’ are not dirty or anti-Semitic. They are the only things that can bring a modicum of sanity back to a region that has fallen down too many slippery slopes. The first step is ending the illegal blockade with provisions that accommodate Israel’s legitimate security concerns, and allowing the people of Gaza to live a dignified life with a functioning economy. The next is reaching a deal for the release of Gilad Shalit, negotiating a comprehensive ceasefire that includes halting illegal settlement expansion on the West Bank, and setting the stage for meaningful peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
Israel has a chance for peace if it relinquishes the West Bank and Gaza for a Palestinian state. If it doesn’t, it knows it faces a one-state struggle. And both options are politically impossible in an increasingly right-wing Israel, hunkering in its bunker of self-fulfilling paranoia. So it fights. And kills. And waits for someone to save it from itself.