An ancient proverb holds that the gods first drive mad those whom they wish to destroy. What madness could have driven the Israeli government to order its navy to attack, in international waters, a flotilla of ships full of human rights activists, MPs from governments around the world, a Nobel Prize winner and two former US diplomats?
What was there to gain, in either strategic or PR terms, from killing civilians—as of this writing, at least nine and as many as twenty are dead, along with several dozen injured—who were delivering desperately needed humanitarian aid for the 1.5 million people of Gaza imprisoned behind an Israeli blockade? As Glenn Greenwald put it, “If Israel’s goal were to provoke as much disgust and contempt for it as possible, it’s hard to imagine how it could be doing a better job.”
Indeed, the repercussions could be extremely damaging for Israel. Demonstrations broke out in cities around the world, including New York. Embassies condemned the attack and recalled ambassadors, while the UN Security Council demanded an end to the Gaza blockade. The UN’s Special Rapporteur for the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Richard Falk, said, “It is essential that those Israelis responsible for this lawless and murderous behavior, including political leaders who issued the orders, be held criminally accountable for their wrongful acts. Israel is guilty of shocking behavior by using deadly weapons against unarmed civilians on ships that were situated in the high seas where freedom of navigation exists, according to the law of the seas.” Falk said “It is time to insist on the end of the blockade of Gaza.” In a predictably contemptible statement, Washington’s representative to the UN, after expressing “regret” for the loss of life, managed to blame the victims, saying delivery of aid by the sea “is neither appropriate nor responsible.” (How else were they supposed to give it, when Israel is enforcing a blockade by land?)
The attack may have irreparably damaged Israel’s ties with Turkey, a key regional ally and power broker with whom relations were already strained. Tens of thousands demonstrated across the country, with crowds trying to storm the Israeli consulate in Istanbul. No wonder, since the majority of passengers on board the largest ship in the flotilla were Turkish, and much of the aid was given through a Turkish NGO, the Humanitarian Relief Foundation. Prime Minister Tayyip Recep Erdogan didn’t mince words. “This action,” he said, “totally contrary to the principles of international law, is inhumane state terrorism.”
There will be internal repercussions as well. Israel’s Palestinian citizens, over 1 million strong and some 20 percent of the population, were at a boiling point amid rumors that the head of the country’s Islamic Movement, Sheikh Raed Salah, was injured, perhaps seriously, in the Israeli assault. Demonstrations erupted in heavily Arab cities across Israel, and the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee has called a general strike. Tensions are high, as everyone in Israel remembers the dark days of October 2000, when massive sympathy demonstrations across the country at the beginning of the second intifada elicited a brutal response from the security forces, who killed thirteen unarmed protesters.
In an insightful piece in Israel’s Ha’aretz, Bradley Burston said, “We are no longer defending Israel. We are defending the siege. The siege itself is becoming Israel’s Vietnam.… We explain, time and again, that we are not at war with the people of Gaza. We say it time and again because we ourselves need to believe it, and because, deep down, we do not.” (For more on the history and devastating effects of the blockade, read this recent Nation report by Gaza expert Sara Roy.)
The Israeli government may have thought the brutality would finally put a stop to the Free Gaza Movement, which has been sending ships to break the blockade since the summer of 2008 (this latest flotilla, by far the largest, was the ninth). But it is underestimating the courage and tenacity of people like Adam Shapiro and Huwaida Arraf, who helped found the International Solidarity Movement almost ten years ago and who have been key organizers in the Free Gaza Movement. When I talked to Shapiro earlier today, he emphasized the unprovoked nature of Israel’s attack. “It could have just allowed the boats into Gaza,” he said. He also criticized Israel’s complete lockdown of information about the fate of those killed, injured and detained. “It seems they don’t want witnesses to see the injured. Lawyers, including Israeli lawyers, and embassy officials have not been allowed to see or talk to the detainees.… The fact that they haven’t released names shows they have something to hide. Huwaida, my wife, was on board, and I have no idea what happened to her.”