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Crimes, lies, and blunders:
Attacking the Freedom flotilla

Richard Falk, TFF Associate


Written June 2, 2010

There exists a strong international consensus that the Israeli attack on the humanitarian peace convoy was a flagrant violation of international law amounting to a crime against humanity. The attack on Mavi Marmara and other vessels forming the Freedom Flotilla took place in international waters where freedom of the seas confers an unrestricted right of navigation. The Israeli use of force against unarmed ships carrying humanitarian supplies to the people of Gaza was unlawful in its essence, and, as well, grossly disproportionate and excessive.

It was in a context in which these ships were carrying 10,000 tons of food, medical equipment, and building materials to bring a small measure of relief to the 1.5 million Gazans who have been enduring an unlawful and harsh blockade since mid-2007, causing increasing hardships to the entire civilian population.

The blockade is a brazen instance of collective punishment imposed on the people of Gaza, evidently in vindictive response to the vote of January 2006 that brought Hamas an unexpected victory in a free and fair election. From a legal perspective the blockade was a criminally unlawful Israeli policy that violated the unconditional prohibition against collective punishment contained in Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

The peace convoy was intended to bring Gazans needed goods and materials, as well as to show international solidarity on the part of these 700 or so idealistic activists drawn from 50 countries who volunteered for the journey, never realizing that they were risking their lives. That some of these activists are dead, wounded, or lying beaten in Israeli jails is tragic, and at the same time highlights the unwillingness of the political leadership in Tel Aviv to abide by either international law or elemental morality. This unwillingness was reinforced by the cruel Israeli refusal after the incident to inform families and diplomatic representatives of the names of the casualties.

Israel isolated those detained, deprived them of all evidence of what had take place, while its officials flooded the media with a distorted version of the events, completely silencing the more authentic narratives of the victims of IDF violence. It was a cynical case of managing news by disseminating ridiculous distortions as if facts, such as the absurd claim that the heavily armed attackers were the ones acting in self-defense.

The UN Security Council in its Presidential Statement of 31 May unanimously condemned the attack and called for an impartial investigation; most importantly, all members of the Council except the United States, demanded an end to the blockade. Only time will tell whether there is enough muscle behind the demand to achieve the humanitarian outcome that was the objective of the peace convoy, and is the uncompromising demand of world public opinion.

This condemnation of the Israeli attack and its handling of the aftermath is the easy part of an assessment. What is more difficult to figure out is why the Israeli leadership decided to confront this widely publicized humanitarian mission with such crude violence when it could have easily upheld its blockade without provoking such a firestorm of protest and opposition. Israel could have waited until the convoy was closer to shore, and then escorted or accompanied the ships to either an Israeli or Gazan port, dealing with the activists humanely in the process. Instead, it deliberately attacked and boarded the lead ship, Mavi Marmara, flying the Turkish flag.

From start to finish Israel acted as its own worst enemy, with a bewildering reckless disregard of its own national interests. Why would Israel want to provoke outrage in Turkey, the one important country in the region with whom it had a long record of strong cooperation and friendship? Similarly, why would Israel act in such a manner as to make it exceedingly awkward for the United States and EU countries to step forward in their usual manner as protectors of Israel in the face of widespread international hostility, especially among Islamic countries?

And beyond this, why would Israel hand the Palestinians such a major public relations victory in the struggle for the high moral ground in the unresolved political conflict between these two long suffering peoples?

These questions have no obvious answer. The widely admired Israeli journalist, Amira Hass, argued that the incident demonstrated that the Israeli political leadership had shown that it has lost its common sense, which means that its grasp of political reality is so shaky that it inexplicably acts against its own best interests. This is a frightening interpretation as it suggests a disposition to act both recklessly and unlawfully, confirming Israel as an exceedingly dangerous loose cannon with respect to the entire Middle East, which could drift at any point into a devastating regional war. It gives an added darkness to Israel’s militarist posturing with respect to Iran.

Other explanations involve seeking to convey to the Palestinians and other potential adversaries that Israeli behavior will never be shaped by respect for international law or the authority of the UN, and that any external criticism will be ignored and its source vengefully attacked. The fury vented toward Richard Goldstone after he submitted a sober fact-finding report critical of Israel’s behavior during its three week one-sided mass attack (so-called Operation Cast Lead) on a defenseless Gaza between 27 December 2008 and 18 January 2009 in important ways prefigured the excessiveness of the Mavi Marmara attack.

There are no present indications that Israel will pay a heavy geopolitical price for its heavy handed crimes. Clearly Tel Aviv can live, has long lived, with a slap on the wrist by the UN and most of the nations in the world. Its main protector, the United States, has already fallen into line, refusing to condemn Israel’s behavior just as it stood by Israel, thereby abandoning its alleged support for the rule of law, by denouncing the Goldstone Report.

In this respect, none of the outrage arising from the attack on the peace convoy will deprive Israel of the impunity it has enjoyed when it engages in behavior that violates international criminal law. Perhaps, the most significant long lasting international effect will be to strain relations with Turkey for the foreseeable future, and this will certainly alter the regional balance.

More important so far as the Palestinians are concerned is what happens at the grass roots throughout the world. It has been apparent for some time that the Palestinians and their supporters had turned away from armed resistance to the Israeli occupation, and were relying on a variety of soft power instruments to pursue their primary goal of self-determination and an end to occupation. Arguably since the Lebanon War of 2006, and certainly since Operation Cast Lead in 2008-09, the Israelis were losing the Legitimacy War to the Palestinians. This Legitimacy War is waged on a global battlefield, and features the campaign of boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) that is likely to surge in the wake of the grim experience of the Freedom Flotilla.

We need to remember that it was a similar anti-apartheid campaign that led to the collapse of the racist regime in South Africa in the early 1990s. This line of thinking was reinforced by the Turkish Foreign Minister’s statement in the Security Council that a nation that follows the path of lawlessness and criminality would lose “its legitimacy as a respectable member of the international community.” It is notable that these were the words of Mr. Davutoglu that received the most attention in media commentary around the world.

The ebb and flow of a Legitimacy War are often difficult to discern. Historians have suggested that Britain lost India when its soldiers massacred Indian civilians at Amritsar in 1919, although it took almost 30 years of struggle, Gandhi’s inspired leadership, and the impact of World War II to achieve independence. Similarly some have insisted that when the South African police shot unarmed demonstrators in the back at Sharpesville in 1960 they lost the Legitimacy War that eventually led to the downfall of apartheid in 1994. Ironically, Israeli historical memory must be reminded of the crude British naval interception of the Exodus carrying Holocaust survivors in 1947 that sparked the collapse of British colonial administration of the Palestine Mandate a year later.


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We cannot of course tell whether the Mavi Marmara incident will prove in retrospect to be a similar tipping point, which may take years or even decades to work its way out in the form of Palestinian liberation and Zionist collapse. What we can discern even now is that the Palestinians have gained intense support in many sectors of world public opinion, and that this has the potential by way of a massive soft power mobilization to change the balance of forces that has for so long kept the Palestinians in painful captivity.

One can only hope that the lurid bloodshed in the Mediterranean on the early morning of 31 May will catalyze a massive popular movement that can finally bring peace and justice to both peoples in whatever form they freely choose.  



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