Israel’s Many Excuses for The Inexcusable Attack on the Gaza Aid Flotilla
By Mohammed Abed The Israeli Navy intercepted in the early morning of May 31st a flotilla of six ships loaded with medicines, building materials, and other forms of humanitarian aid bound for the besieged Gaza Strip. Israeli naval commandos raided the flotilla while it was roughly 70 miles off shore, more than 50 miles outside of Israel’s territorial waters. The largest ship in the convoy was carrying 600-700 activists, most of them Turkish citizens, although many other nationalities were represented. The commandos fired live rounds at some of the civilians on board the flotilla. The conservative estimate is that 9 civilians were killed and 30-40 injured. According to some news reports, 19 civilians were killed and upward of 60 injured. In the face of serious international condemnation, including a statement from the Turkish Prime Minister that Israel’s actions amounted to “state terrorism,” the Israeli government and its supporters around the world have offered a number of excuses for the raid. The Claim of Self-Defense The first is that the civilians on the Gaza flotilla were killed in self-defense. The Israeli government is claiming that its commandos were attacked with knives, metal pipes, and handguns. Under such conditions, there was no option but to fire on the attackers. Avigdor Lieberman – Israel’s Foreign Minister – has accused the activists on board the humanitarian convoy of being terrorist sympathizers who opened fire on the commandos as soon as they boarded the ships. The official Israeli narrative about the attacks is questionable for a number of reasons. According to Turkish customs officials, all of the ships and civilians on board went through a security screening before the flotilla set sail from Turkey. Some of the activists have denounced as propaganda the assertion that they were carrying firearms, and the absence of Israeli casualties and gunshot wounds would be difficult to explain if they were. Haneen Zoubi, an Arab member of the Israeli parliament has reported that Israeli naval vessels surrounded the Gaza convoy’s flagship, the Mavi Marmara, and opened fire on it without provocation, even before the Marmara was boarded. Other eyewitness reports suggest that the commandos started shooting as soon as they hit the deck. Haneen Zoubi has also contradicted the Israeli government’s claim that the commandos shot only at the activists’ legs. She personally saw two bodies with gun shot wounds in the head. Members of the Free Gaza Movement, the international coalition of solidarity activists who organized the convoy, publicly endorse principles of non-violence and non-violent resistance “in word and deed at all times.” The materials successfully delivered by the movement in the past have been strictly humanitarian. Israel has now impounded all of the materials carried by the latest convoy and no weapons caches have been found, confirming the humanitarian nature of the Gaza activist’s recent mission. All the same, let us simply assume a few civilians on board the flotilla were lightly armed with pipes, knives, and one or two pistols. Let us also assume they used those weapons against the Israeli commandos. What follows from this? Is it plausible to conclude that in killing the civilians, Israel was acting in self-defense? The answer is ‘no,’ and the reasons for this conclusion are as follows: first, because the flotilla was in international waters and did not present a credible threat to Israel’s security, the Israelis had no right to attack it. Doing so was a naked act of aggression. If this is the case (and it is), and considering the fact that the Israeli commandos were heavily armed and presented a serious threat to life and limb, only the activists on board the flotilla can legitimately claim self-defense as their cause and as a means of explaining their actions. Although the Israeli soldier who is fired on can safeguard his personal security by firing back, he is still the aggressor and should be treated as such. Israel’s actions are, in one sense, akin to those of the criminal who hijacks at gunpoint a vehicle on public roads. If the opportunity arose, the owner of the vehicle would be absolutely justified in defending both herself and her property against such an attack, and there is no sense in which the assailant would be any less of an aggressor because of the threat posed by the victim’s defensive action. The pattern of death and injury on the convoy – and numerous eyewitness reports – suggest at the very least that the commandos did not open fire only when their lives were directly threatened. The claim that the commandos opened fire on civilians indiscriminately is more difficult to defend but is by no means obviously false. Because the flotilla was clearly not a military target, Israel cannot – as it has so often done in the past – excuse as ‘collateral damage’ the killing of significant numbers of innocent civilians. It also makes no sense to say that Israel’s use of force was ‘disproportionate.’ A flotilla of civilian vessels carrying cement, water purifiers, and medicine is not a collection of warships. Clubs, knives and pistols are not sophisticated rockets that can hit Tel-Aviv or Jerusalem. European legislators and an Arab member of the Israeli Knesset are not heavily armed terrorists. In other words, an analysis in terms of proportionality makes no sense in this context because of the civilian nature of the target. An attack can only be assessed as to its degree of proportionality by determining what is proportionate to the military advantage gained by the attack. An armed assault on a civilian target such as the Gaza convoy gives rise to no proportionality analysis at all since it is straightforwardly prohibited under international law. Unless one can successfully defend the idea that Israel can extend at will its sovereignty over international waters – a claim that cannot credibly be asserted – then one will accept that it had no right to board the Gaza flotilla. And unless one can show that civilians armed mainly with kitchen utensils and common tools pose a mortal threat to heavily armed and professionally trained commandos, then one will question the claim that the commandos killed those civilians in self-defense. Some commentators have criticized Israel’s actions by suggesting that they amounted to piracy on the high seas. Salon’s Glenn Greenwald argues that “what’s so odd” about the idea that Israel has the right to forcibly intercept ships sailing in international waters “is that the U.S. has been spending a fair amount of time recently condemning exactly such acts as ‘piracy’ and demanding ‘that those who commit acts of piracy are held accountable for their crimes.’” This is an interesting and compelling assertion, but it entirely understates the seriousness of Israel’s actions. Israel’s attack on the Gaza flotilla was not a hastily improvised private criminal operation but a carefully planned and coordinated act of state approved through official channels by the political leadership, specifically defense minister Ehud Barak and the security cabinet. An attack of this nature, against civilian ships flying white flags, amounts to military aggression – a casus belli – whereas piracy is not a state-sponsored act under international law and does not capture, for other reasons, the seriousness of what the Israelis did. A number of Israeli politicians and military leaders have joined Avigdor Lieberman in suggesting that unspecified individuals aboard the Gaza convoy have vague and amorphous links to terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda and Palestinian organizations such as Hamas. The charge of being a ‘terrorist sympathizer’ or having unnamed connections to terrorist groups has long been a key feature of Israel’s public relations strategy. Israel achieves a number of things by freely making such accusations. First, the accused individuals or groups are immediately discredited and placed outside the bounds of reasonable discourse and ‘civilized’ behavior. Terrorist sympathizers are not perceived as individuals who have legitimate grievances that ought to be seriously considered. Second, the claim that a person is somehow ‘implicated’ in terror deflects critical attention away from Israel’s own policies and actions. This is convenient because those policies and actions are so often oppressive and injurious, especially to Palestinians living under Israeli military control in the occupied territories. In the United States, for example, the mainstream media has focused more on Israel’s allegations about civilians on board the flotilla than on its deplorable actions. Third, accusations such as those made by Lieberman exploit the legitimate fears of ordinary people, especially in the Western world, about the threat of terrorism. This suppresses debate about organized state violence directed at innocent civilians and lays the foundation for the use of such violence against similar targets in the future. Finally, the allegation that individuals on board the Gaza flotilla have connections to Al-Qaeda tars the Palestinian cause with a brush of fringe fanaticism that is unrelated to any legitimate grievance. When it is successful, the tarring makes it difficult to see that what ordinary Palestinians seek – and what Israel has systematically denied them – is freedom, both individual and collective. Unless the Israeli government can produce convincing, concrete, and independently verifiable evidence that individuals on the Gaza convoy have committed or are presently conspiring to commit acts of terrorism against Israeli citizens, then its claims should be dismissed as mere propaganda. Even if it had available such evidence, Israel would have been required to arrest and put on trial the suspects rather than simply killing them extra-judicially. An Assault on Israel’s Sovereignty? The second excuse for Israel’s actions calls into question one aspect of what I have said above. The Israeli foreign minister has also suggested that delivering humanitarian aid to Gaza constitutes an assault on Israel’s sovereignty. If he is right, then there is a significant threat that might justify a military response. Closely related to this argument is the claim that the Israelis must not allow for the establishment of a regular shipping channel to Gaza so that the territory does not become a “terrorist port on the Mediterranean” that threatens Israel’s security. The first problem with this line of argument is that Israeli sovereignty does not extend to Gaza, although Israel’s continued control of the Strip’s borders, airspace, and territorial waters undermine the claim that it ended its military occupation of the area in late 2005. The claim that delivering humanitarian aid to Gaza somehow imperils Israeli sovereignty is therefore false. Secondly, the delivery of humanitarian supplies such as medicine and food will not make Gaza into a “terrorist port on the Mediterranean.” Although Israel has legitimate security concerns, it does not thereby have the right to attack a convoy of civilian ships on a humanitarian mission, especially when that convoy is in waters over which Israel has no legal jurisdiction and is heading to a territory that is not subject to Israeli sovereignty. The claim that the Gaza convoy is somehow implicated in terrorist activities is yet another illustration of how Israel attempts to smear any effort to non-violently resist its repressive policies. The flotilla was attacked because it challenged and bravely confronted Israel’s continued military control of the coastal strip, especially its systematic ten-year old siege of the area, a policy that international human rights groups and various officials at the U.N. have described as collective punishment. The effects of the blockade have been devastating. According to an August 2009 report issued by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the unemployment rate in Gaza had risen to over 40% and approximately 75% of Gaza’s population is classified as “food insecure.” In May 2008, the World Health Organization reported that over 10% of Palestinians in Gaza were chronically malnourished and that the rate of unemployment amongst the younger generation was 67%. The widely condemned Israeli attack on Gaza in 2008-2009 destroyed or seriously damaged over 6000 civilian homes. These homes cannot be rebuilt because Israel makes it very difficult for cement to enter the coastal strip. Aware of these and other adverse effects on Gaza’s civilian population, the U.N. Secretary General recently called on Israel to lift its siege of the area. While such statements are certainly helpful, Israel will not be moved by moral persuasion alone. The international community must intervene to protect the people of Gaza and make Israel face the consequences of its actions legally, politically, and in the sphere of global public opinion. Unfortunately, whenever the world appears fed up with Israel’s destructive policies and military campaigns, the United States steps in and blocks any further action from being taken. In the winter of 2008-2009, Israel bombarded the Gaza Strip and killed in excess of 1300 civilians. The United Nations report on that offensive, authored by the highly respected South African jurist Richard Goldstone, concluded that both Israel and Hamas committed war crimes (Israel was said to have deliberately targeted civilians during the assault). The Goldstone report recommended criminal investigation and possible prosecution of those found responsible. In response, the Obama administration shamefully blocked Security Council consideration of the report and thereby protected Israel from the possible legal consequences of its actions. The Obama administration’s initial response to the attack on the Gaza flotilla was to say only that it regrets the loss of life and is awaiting further information before making a final judgment. However, when Turkey and other countries lobbied for a Security Council resolution that included demands for an impartial international inquiry into the raid, the Obama administration changed its tune and blocked their efforts. Instead, the Council issued a watered down statement that criticized “acts” of violence without mentioning Israel. Even in the face of its intransigence and criminal behavior, the United States continues to reward Israel with unprecedented levels of material and political support. It is no surprise, then, that Israel continues to act with total impunity and disregard for international norms and conventions. If states and transnational institutions are either unwilling or unable to step in and end this state of affairs, then the responsibility for doing so falls on the shoulders of international civil-society, especially the citizens of countries that financially and otherwise enable Israel’s policies and military campaigns. Concerned American citizens can act on this responsibility by persuading their government to make military and other forms of aid to Israel conditional on the satisfaction of its obligations under international law, or they can join the growing global campaign to boycott Israel. The activists on board the Gaza flotilla have already acted on this responsibility and should be praised – not vilified and shot at – for doing so. ———- Mohammed Abed is Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Cal State L.A. Recently, his research has been focused on various normative and conceptual issues raised by political violence, especially terrorism, war, and Genocide. Professor Abed also does work on global justice and a number of other topics in the area of ethics and international relations. The regional focus of his work is the Middle East.