News & Politics

Israel's Deadly Attack on Peace Activists Provokes International Outrage, Diplomatic Crisis

When Israeli commandos dropped from the sky, swarmed the vessels and massacred international activists, Israel lost a massive battle in its global public relations war.

Days of tension between Israel’s hawkish government and the organizers of the Freedom Flotilla carrying 700 peace activists and 10,000 tons of desperately needed supplies to Gaza culminated in grisly carnage after a deadly pre-dawn attack by Israeli commandos. The operation left between nine and 19 international activists dead and dozens more injured and bleeding on the decks of the civilian vessels.

As Ha’aretz columnist Yossi Melman wrote, “No matter how one looks at the conduct of the Israeli government and the IDF, it is hard to understand how stupid and tragic it was. Time and again, Israel tries to prove that what can't be solved by force can be solved by more force.”

The international backlash against the Netanyahu government has been swift, and it will likely prove deep. Reuters reported that the attacks had “set off a diplomatic furor, drawing criticism from friends and foes alike.” Moscow condemned the attack as a “gross violation” of international law. The Turkish government called it an act of “state terrorism,” and recalled its ambassador to Israel. It joined Greece in canceling joint military exercises planned with the Israeli Defense Forces.

Israeli hawks and their defenders abroad frequently express deep concern about what they view as a campaign of “delegitimization” of the Jewish state. They see the international boycott movement, student divestment campaigns and criticism from human rights groups as grave threats to Israel’s continued support within the international community, especially from the United States and Europe. They fear the potential ramifications of global public opinion turning wholly and irreversibly against them; they see the potential for that scenario to re-define Israel’s most important strategic relationships.

When the UN released the Goldstone Report, which called out both Israel and Hamas for war crimes committed during the 2008 Gaza conflict, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told reporters, "the delegitimization must be delegitimized." So it’s no small irony that the habitual use of lethal force by “Bibi’s” right-wing government -- against not only armed Palestinian resistance groups but also routinely against Palestinian and foreign civilians and peaceful protesters -- has done much more to turn Israel into a ”pariah state” than its critics could have ever hoped to do.

As Steven Walt of Harvard put it:

How could they possibly believe that a deadly assault against a humanitarian mission in international waters would play to their advantage? Israel's government and its hard-line supporters frequently complain about alleged efforts to "delegitimize" the country, but actions like this are the real reason Israel's standing around the world has plummeted to such low levels.

The attack on the Freedom Flotilla might ultimately prove as devastating to Israel’s blanket claim that it acts proportionally and in self-defense as it was brutal for the activists aboard the ships. The troops didn’t have to board the vessels to stop them. In 1988, when the PLO announced that a ship called The Return would embark for Israel filled with Palestinian refugees, Mossad agents sabotaged the craft before anyone boarded, causing extensive damage but no loss of life. As a last resort, military commanders could have used directed fire on the motors of the ships, halting their voyage without bloodshed. (To be clear, the blockade is both ineffective and an example of collective punishment -- I’m not endorsing these actions. The point is that the operation was a tragic example of thoughtless overkill.)

Although it went largely unnoticed in the U.S. media before this weekend’s deadly raid, the approach of the flotilla was a major news story elsewhere in the world. Activists and aid workers had won a victory against the Israeli blockade the instant they set off to deliver their relief supplies. The question was only how significant it would be.

If the Netanyahu government had allowed the vessels to offload their goods, the Freedom Flotilla would have had a modest impact at best. Gazans would have received some supplies, whose delivery might have raised awareness of the desperate crisis they have faced since 2006.  Perhaps the New York Times would have devoted a few hundred words to the event in its international section. That’s basically what occurred in 1988, when under Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Israel permitted an aid ship filled with supplies and activists to enter Gaza unchallenged.

But when Israeli commandos dropped from the sky, swarmed the vessels and massacred the unarmed (or lightly armed) passengers, Israel lost a massive battle in its global public relations war, a campaign that’s ultimately based on deflecting criticism of its suppression of the Palestinians with endless claims to the moral high-ground. On the heels of the disastrous invasion of Lebanon in 2006 and the Gaza war in 2008, it may prove to be the greatest defeat in the young country’s history.

A reactionary Israeli government fell into a classic trap, one that was well understood by Gandhi when he fought the all-powerful British Empire for an independent Indian state. As Yosi Melman put it, “The organizers of the flotilla wanted to present the Israel Defense Forces to the world as an army that does not hesitate to use force. The flotilla organizers wanted deaths, casualties, blood and billows of smoke.” Melman added: “Every child knows that the conflict here is one of consciousness, images, emotion and gut-feelings; not one of justice or logic.”

Helena Cobban noted that the humanitarian group had “pursued textbook rules of nonviolent action … they allowed their ships to be inspected by governments before they took them to sea, they continually announced their intention of taking the humanitarian supplies to Gaza, and they worked hard to make their action as visible as possible.”

Cobban continued:

Israel's security forces have become accustomed over many decades to using lethal force against opponents, then claiming it was the opponents who "fired first." They have become accustomed, moreover, to their government and its cheerleaders around the world having such a dominant position in the media that they can hope to have this version of events generally accepted-- or at least, accepted by enough of the people in power around the world that they don't need to worry about the real facts getting out.

Israel’s hard-line government gambled that the usual tactics would prove effective on this occasion. The Guardian reported that “a sophisticated public relations operation was underway” in Israel to influence the international media’s coverage of the carnage. “Spinners and spokesmen from the Israeli military and government departments politely answered questions [from the international media] and offered their own narrative of the day's events,” reported the Guardian, as “a barrage of emails and text message alerts firing into inboxes” provided the official version of events. Here in the U.S., AIPAC, the Israeli right-wing’s premiere Washington lobbying group, shot off dozens of releases to reporters accusing “the terrorist-linked flotilla organizers” of being in league with Al Qaeda.

The Israeli Defense Force immediately expressed its “regret” over the deaths, while claiming that the killing was entirely justified. The Israeli Navy said that its heavily armed commandos were attacked by activists “armed with sticks and knives,” who tried to “lynch” them. Turkish television broadcast footage of some of the passengers hitting soldiers with sticks or pipes. But according to NBC, “a reporter on one of the boats said the Israelis fired” at the unarmed vessel before boarding it. In any event, when a civilian vessel comes under armed attack in international waters during the dead of night, its occupants have the right to defend themselves. When one wounded Greek activist was brought to a hospital for treatment, reporters asked him who had been responsible for his injuries. He replied, simply, “pirates.”

Israeli officials later claimed the activists had pulled out hidden guns when the commandos attacked. It’s an implausible tale. According to the Turkish daily Zaman, “Officials from the Customs Undersecretariat said every passenger was searched before getting on the ship with the help of X-ray machines and metal detectors. Senior officials from the undersecretariat said Israel's allegations were tantamount to ‘complete nonsense.’”

If the Netanyahu government believed the standard claims of self-defense would have their usual salutary effect, it likely made a critical miscalculation. This was not a group of protesters fired upon in the occupied territories. It was an attack on a convoy that NBC reports included 11 Americans -- among them a former ambassador -- as well as 1976 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mairead Corrigan Maguire of Northern Ireland. It took place in international waters, and the ships were sailing under the flag of Turkey, a member of NATO. Israeli officials may claim the flotilla was itself provocative -- and it was certainly intended to be -- but even if one accepts that as a premise to stop it, the massacre nonetheless represents a monstrously disproportionate use of force.

"I condemn the violence, and Israel must explain," said United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. In a joint statement, Robert Serry, U.N. special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, and Filippo Grandi, commissioner general of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency said: "We wish to make clear that such tragedies are entirely avoidable if Israel heeds the repeated calls of the international community to end its counterproductive and unacceptable blockade of Gaza."

Ultimately, defenders of Israel’s right-wing -- I don’t use the term “pro-Israel” -- fear a tipping point in international public opinion more than protests from other governments. Israel has long justified its oppression of the Palestinian population by portraying itself as a beleaguered underdog, surrounded by powerful and hostile enemies. That veil is lifting, even, or especially, among the American Jewish community. A generational divide has opened up as younger Jews, who don’t remember a time when Israel wasn’t a nuclear-armed regional superpower backed by the world’s greatest military force, are “distancing” themselves from the Jewish state. The right-wingers ascendant in Israeli politics are true believers, who think that God is on their side. That might help explain why they appear to be oblivious to the danger this kind of naked violence poses to the very legitimacy they work tirelessly to defend.

Seventy-five years ago Gandhi said that nonviolence is “the greatest force at the disposal of mankind,” and “mightier than the mightiest weapon of destruction devised by the ingenuity of man.” He explained that the power of nonviolent resistance derives from its ability to expose an oppressor’s cruelty to the world and, ultimately, to himself. “Truth is my God,” he said. “Non-violence is the means of realizing Him.”

Commenting on the attack on the Freedom Flotilla in Ha’aretz, Bradley Burston wrote, “We were determined to avoid an honest look at the first Gaza war. Now, in international waters and having opened fire on an international group of humanitarian aid workers and activists, we are fighting and losing the second. For Israel, in the end, this Second Gaza War could be far more costly and painful than the first.”

History will prove him correct, and the most hawkish elements in Israeli society will be directly responsible for her pain. It’s a self-inflicted wound, with only the assistance of a small group of human rights activists who this past weekend turned their bloody bodies into “the mightiest weapon of destruction devised by the ingenuity of man.”

Editor's note: Check out AlterNet's Change.org petition urging Obama and Congress to condemn Israel's attack.

Joshua Holland is an editor and senior writer at AlterNet.