Phyllis Bennis, 6 June 2010
Phyllis Bennis is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington and the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam, and works with the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation. Author of Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer.
Israeli commandoes murdered nine humanitarian aid workers in international waters. Nine were Turkish citizens; one a U.S. citizen. They wounded scores more. They imprisoned hundreds, and impounded the ships they hijacked on the high seas. Someone asked me the question: will they get away with it? So far, I answered, they HAVE gotten away with it. And if history repeats itself, if nothing changes, they will continue to get away with it.
Our job is to change history.
And this time, Israel’s savagery may just have made our job a lot easier. When the histories are written, it is certain that Israel’s Flotilla Massacre will be remembered as a key battle in what Richard Falk, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in the Occupied Territory, calls Israel’s “war of legitimacy.” And this battle, Israel has already lost.
The Israel’s global propaganda machine had swung into full gear even before the massacre itself, when the Israeli military invited certain foreign journalists to embed with the commandoes at they headed out to sea towards their targets. The talking points were clear, the propagandists were disciplined and stayed on message: The passengers were not humanitarian aid workers but armed al Qaeda operatives. The activists on board the ship were armed and the soldiers were “lynched.” The attacking commandoes leaping onto the deck of the civilian ship from assault helicopters hovering above naturally had the right of self-defense. Israel has the right to impose a blockade on the Gaza Strip and therefore has the right to forcibly board and hijack civilian ships headed in that direction in order to “check for weapons.” The goal of the Gaza Freedom Flotilla was not humanitarian but was – gasp! – to break the blockade, so obviously it was a legitimate target. And most important, Israel’s U.S.-backed blockade of Gaza has not created a humanitarian disaster for the 1.5 million ordinary people, half of them under the age of 18, who live in the besieged Strip.
But within the first days following the assault, Israel’s much-vaunted PR operation was collapsing. The problem, it turns out, is that facts are not only inconvenient, they matter. They matter a lot. And the facts were not on Israel’s side.
LIES, LIES AND MORE LIES
The Israeli government was forced to remove its website’s allegations about al Qaeda links when U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley admitted that the U.S. “cannot validate” any such claim, and that the Turkish humanitarian organization coordinating the ship’s voyage “has not been designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the United States.” The “weapons” shown by the Israeli military were a few pieces of wood and metal found everywhere on every ship, along with some ordinary knives, and a couple of bullet-proof vests for protection – hardly evidence of a planned “ambush.” The special forces assaulting the ship pirate-style from helicopters and speedboats were attacking an unarmed civilian vessel in international waters – an act that amounts to an act of war – and commandoes launching such a unilateral act of war obviously have no “right of self-defense.”
Israel claims that it has the “right” under international law to unilaterally declare an armed naval blockade designed to besiege a civilian population, and to forcibly board and seize any civilian ship even in international waters that is heading towards the blockaded zone. In fact, such claims are completely false. The Geneva Convention’s Article 33 prohibits all collective punishment, and thus forbids the economic siege and military blockade of Gaza and the creation of a naval enforcement zone. Sending commandoes to forcibly board and seize a civilian ship, imprisoning its passengers and crew, and impounding its cargo, would be defined as piracy if carried out by an unflagged ship or “non-state actors.” When committed by a sovereign state, such as the Israeli military operating under orders of the government, it amounts to an act of war, in this case against Turkey.
Israel also claimed, almost laughably, that because the stated goal of the Free Gaza Movement was to break the blockade, the Mavi Marmara’s voyage somehow wasn’t really a humanitarian act. In fact, there is an exact parallel in the actions of the early lunch counter sit-ins of the U.S. civil rights movement: while the freedom workers may well have been hungry when they sat down, their goal was not to be served coffee but to end segregation. Of course the ship’s voyage was a political act, repeated by the Rachel Corrie a few days later: to respond to Israel’s politically-driven humanitarian catastrophe and to achieve a humanitarian goal – ending the crippling blockade of Gaza.
Certainly the most dangerous lie from Israeli officials was the claim that “there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza.” I won’t waste time restating the myriad reports by the United Nations, Amnesty International, Oxfam, UNICEF and others proving precisely the opposite. The following two points should suffice: more than 80% of Gazans are dependent on international aid for food survival, of which 65% are children; and more than 10% are already permanently stunted from lack of decent food. Or, as CNN’s Jerusalem bureau chief Ben Wedeman tweeted yesterday, “Just imagine if 80 pct of Americans lived on food stamps and 50 pct unemployed. That’s Gaza. Humanitarian crisis? Yes.”
Tragically, it may turn out that it took the murder of nine humanitarian aid activists, the wounding and arrests of hundreds more, the seizure of the Gaza aid ships and their cargo, together to begin to accomplish the political goal that has so far eluded the feeble governmental and multilateral diplomatic efforts, as well as far more committed and powerful Palestinian and global civil society campaigns – to force an end to the blockade and siege of Gaza.
The ferocity of the massacre on the Mavi Marmara has forced even reluctant U.S. allies to criticize Israeli policy, some for the first time. For some countries, the reaction has been exceptionally strong. Turkey, responding to the murders on board the Turkish-flagged ship, withdrew its ambassador from Israel and announced a reduction in overall military and trade relations. Turkish President Abdullah Gul stated that “from now on, Turkish-Israeli ties will never be the same. The incident has left a deep and irreparable scar.” Turkey then issued three demands to Israel as the price for restoring normal relations: apologize for the raid, organize an independent investigation, and significantly, to lift the blockade of Gaza. Losing or even diminishing Israel’s longstanding relations with NATO’s only Muslim-majority country, ties that included access to water, joint military exercises and a ready market for military exports, will have serious consequences for Tel Aviv.
Pressure is mounting. UN officials, despite the U.S. pressure that left the Security Council unable to pass a resolution even condemning the murders at sea, are making stronger statements. The European Union’s response remains anemic, but protests are continuing across Europe and governments face mounting demands to act against Israel’s aggression. NATO has yet to respond, but Turkey is reported to be considering a request to the NATO High Command to answer Israel’s act of war against the Turkish-flagged ship with an act of collective defense as required under the NATO charter.
The question now remains: What will the Obama administration do? To avoid being held directly accountable for Israel’s assault because of the decades of direct U.S. military aid and its assurance of complete impunity for Israeli war crimes, the U.S. will have to begin, at least, by ending its endorsement of Israel’s plan for an internal domestic “investigation” of its own violations. Instead, the U.S. will have to allow (if not actually support) the creation of a truly international, meaning UN-coordinated investigation of the massacre at sea. Longer term, a real change in U.S. policy will be required if the U.S. is to get out from under the rising level of international isolation, by ending its military aid to Israel (currently a ten-year $30 billion package), and allowing, if not actually supporting, efforts towards real accountability for Israeli military and political leaders.
So if those are the necessary first step for the Obama administration and other governments, what should civil society be doing? First, even as we mourn the dead, we should celebrate the courage and commitment of the Free Gaza Movement, the ships’ passengers and crews – for showing the world that when governments and the UN fail to protect the human rights of vulnerable populations, and when they fail to hold violators of those rights accountable, then global civil society will step forward. What the Gaza Flotilla and the massacre of the Mavi Marmara have accomplished, so far, include not only reaching people around the world with unchallengeable new evidence of Israeli violations, but actually forcing policy changes in key governments.
To consolidate and broaden those gains, global civil society will have to continue to mobilize and strengthen our BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) campaigns that bring non-violent economic and other pressure to bear on Israel to end the occupation and end its apartheid policies, and we should note the important new BDS victories that have emerged in the wake of the Gaza Flotilla crisis. Those victories include the decision by the student body of Rachel Corrie’s alma mater, Evergreen College in Olympia, Washington, to divest from companies that profit from the Israeli occupation, and to make their campus Caterpillar-free.
Crucially, we must maintain the overall pressure to discredit and break the U.S.-backed Israeli blockade and siege of Gaza – not simply “ease” the blockade for a few days or allow in a few more items. The massive press coverage of the Mavi Marmara massacre has helped break the blockade of ideas, and we must build on that momentum. Governments will never lead – but with sufficient pressure from social movements and civil society around the world, they can be made to follow. That is how we will win the “war of legitimacy” that Israel, with its continuing policies of occupation and apartheid, is already losing.