Everyone must know by now of the most recent outrage perpetrated by the Israelis. On Sunday evening, under cover of darkness, Israeli forces and commandos attacked the Freedom Flotilla, a group of 6 ships heading for Gaza with 10,000 tons of humanitarian supplies. Included in the cargo were medical supplies (hundreds of wheelchairs for Gazans crippled in the 2009 Israeli assault, and a dental clinic for Al-Shifa Hospital), as well as much-needed supplies to repair such things as destroyed houses and water systems. This was too much for the Israelis. They had warned they would stop the ships, and they did. What they hadn’t warned about was a commando assault in international waters, with at least 9 members of the relief effort dead.
As usual, the Israeli propaganda machine, supported by its American media puppets, went into high gear as soon as the news broke. The Israelis said that they were only acting in “self-defense,” because the “activists” aboard the ship attacked them first, with clubs, knives, and “even guns.” The commandos, who had been lowered to the lead ship’s deck by helicopters, had no choice, it was claimed, but to defend themselves. Poor things. They were simply boarding a ship in international waters—clearly illegal, and at the least piracy, at the worst an act of war—and those dastardly “activists” attacked them. So who could blame these innocents for “defending themselves” against putative “Hamas sympathizers” who were really trying to spark a confrontation?
There were subtler points to be made as well. Several news reports, in describing the background in Gaza, pointed out that Israel’s blockade was only imposed “after the Palestinian militant group Hamas seized control of the tiny Mediterranean territory in 2007” (May 31, 2010 AP article, by Selcan Hacaoglu and Lea Keath). The blame for this and other Israeli acts was thus placed on Hamas—i.e. for violently “seizing control” of Gaza. But wait. Wasn’t there an election in there somewhere? Didn’t Hamas win an election judged fully open and fair on January 26, 2006, which gave it control over all Palestinian territory, including the West Bank? I think so. I also seem to remember that Israel and the United States immediately condemned this insufferable result, democratic or not, and began supplying Hamas’s rival, the Fatah movement headed by its puppet Mahmoud Abbas, with weapons to attack Hamas and prevent them from taking power. It was this engineered conflict that finally resulted in a Hamas victory over Fatah on June 14, 2007—what the media calls “seizing control.” In fact, Hamas was defending the electoral victory it had fairly and democratically won. It was then hit with a full Israeli blockade, and, in January 2009, a full-scale Israeli invasion that slaughtered some 1400 Gazans and left the territory of 1.5 million inhabitants in ruins.
It was this deadly, punitive blockade that the Israelis were trying to keep in place and the Freedom Flotilla was openly trying to breach with humanitarian goods. And in contrast to the Israeli position—that Gaza is by no means a humanitarian disaster, its inhabitants well-fed and taken care of—the United Nations has several times condemned the blockade, most recently in the form of the UN-commissioned Gaza report by Justice Richard Goldstone (known as the Goldstone Report). As laid out by Ray McGovern in a splendid article on June 1, “Obama’s Timidity and Death at Sea,” (commondreams.org) the report concluded:
“The blockade policies implemented by Israel against the Gaza Strip, in particular the closure of or restrictions imposed on border crossings in the immediate period before the military operations, subjected the local population to extreme hardship and deprivations that amounted to a violation of Israel’s obligations as an Occupying Power under the Fourth Geneva Convention. …
“Israel has essentially violated its obligation to allow free passage of all consignments of medical and hospital objects, food, and clothing that were needed to meet the urgent humanitarian needs of the civilian population …
“The Mission concludes that the conditions resulting from deliberate actions of the Israeli forces and the declared policies of the Government with regard to the Gaza Strip before, during, and after the military operation cumulatively indicate the intention to inflict collective punishment on the people of the Gaza Strip."
This business of “collective punishment” is serious, for it constitutes “a violation of the provisions of Articles 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention.”
This is the real background of the Gaza Freedom Flotilla. The blockade is illegal and inhuman, and attempting to bring some relief to the Gazan people and attention to the blockade has implied international sanction. Some of the people aboard the flotilla provide not only evidence of this, but also of the shameful history of decades of United States support for such violations. I am referring to Navy veteran Joe Meadors, a past president of the USS Liberty Veterans Association. As Ray McGovern notes, Meadors was on the USS Liberty when the American intelligence-collecting ship was attacked by Israeli warplanes on June 5, 1967, during the Six-Day War (Israel apparently feared that some of its communications, proving that it had initiated the war against Egypt, had been picked up by the Liberty, and would become public). As they did two days ago, Israeli forces attacked an unarmed ship without provocation, killing 34 American sailors and wounding another 170. Incredibly, the U.S. government, fearful of exacerbating relations with an important ally, colluded in covering up the massacre. Sailors were ordered to remain silent about what happened. Joe Meadors was one of them, and, after so many years, apparently decided to take part in this latest attempt to relieve the suffering of the Palestinians. He is now among the 600 or so freedom activists being held incommunicado (stripped of all cell phones, laptops, cameras, and personal belongings) by the Israelis.
What we have, then, is yet another violation of international law by the Israeli government, and yet another instance of American timidity in response to it. The Obama administration has so far adopted a “let’s wait for the evidence” attitude, limiting itself to “regret” over the unfortunate deaths. Israel has also expressed regret that its “innocent” mission somehow turned violent when the activists attacked first. But the first comments from released activists—including those of Nilufer Cetin of Turkey, who was released because she accompanied her husband (the chief engineer of the Mavi Marmara, the lead ship) with her tiny child—tell a different story. “There was a massacre on board,” said Cetin. “The Mavi Marmara is filled with blood.” As opposed to the Israeli version, Cetin says:
“the operation started immediately with firing. First it was warning shots, but when the Mavi Marmara wouldn’t stop, these warnings turned into an attack. There were sound and smoke bombs and later they used gas bombs. Following the bombings they started to come on board from helicopters.” (“Israelis Opened Fire Before Boarding Gaza Flotilla, say Released Activists” by Dorian Jones, June 1, 2010, The Guardian/UK (reprinted commondreams.org).
The above article also quoted Dimitris Gielalis, aboard a second ship:
“Suddenly from everywhere we saw inflatables coming at us, and within seconds fully equipped commandos came up on the boat. They came up and used plastic bullets, we had beatings, we had electric shocks, any method we can think of, they used.”
Yet another released survivor from another ship, Michalis Grigoropoulos, said:
“The Israelis acted like pirates…They took us hostage, pointing guns at our heads; they descended from helicopters and fired tear gas and bullets. There was absolutely nothing we could do…Those who tried to resist forming a human ring on the bridge were given electric shocks.”
So much for innocent Israelis forced into violence by fully-armed activists (it should be noted that all the dead were activists). The truth seems to be that the Israelis wanted, once again, to demonstrate who is in control in the eastern Mediterranean, and what the consequences are for international activists trying to ease the pain of those in Gaza. Israel considers such actions hostile, and is eager to convey its warning: ‘help the Palestinians and you will be treated just as they are.’ Another activist, demonstrating in Jerusalem, served as part of this warning yesterday. As reported by the AP on June 1, Emily Henochowicz of Maryland lost her eye when she was hit by a tear gas canister fired directly at her face. She joins American activists like Rachel Corrie and others who have been maimed and killed while trying to protect Palestinians, or their homes (Rachel Corrie was bulldozed to death while standing before a Palestinian house slated for demolition) or their human dignity. This in the face of all those who lament, ‘why can’t the Palestinians use non-violence?’
In response to all this, American politicians seem content to express regrets over the bloodshed, and support for Israel’s “right to defend itself.” But as Ray McGovern points out, this kind of pusillanimous behavior has consequences. Israel clearly takes America’s silence, Obama’s silence in the face of its most brutal depradations as encouragement: 'do whatever you want to, but try to be a bit more discreet about it.' The result is that people die, people are brutalized, people are forced to endure the kind of treatment that stands comparison with the worst tortures and oppressions in human history. And we, we are forced to contemplate the cowardice of our political “leaders” and the continuing degradation of our ethics, our standing in the world, and the very language that is used to justify piracy and the murder of aid workers as “self-defense.”