13 July 2010

Jack A. Smith : Israel and Palestine After the Flotilla / 2

A graffiti artist paints the face of a Palestinian child on a wall in Beirut, Lebanon. Image from EPA.

Part 2: Breaking the blockade
Israel and Palestine after the Flotilla

By Jack A. Smith / The Rag Blog / July 13, 2010

[This is the second in a four-part series in which Jack A. Smith assesses multiple aspects of the situation in Palestine, including the relations between Israel and the U.S., Israel and the Palestine National Authority, the Palestinian split between Fatah and Hamas, the action and inaction of the Arab states, the new role of Turkey, the key importance of Iran, and the future of Washington's hegemony in the Middle East.]

Israel's blockade is an act of collectively punishing an entire people -- outlawed in international jurisprudence -- initially launched as sanctions against the inhabitants of Gaza for democratically electing the Islamic party Hamas in the legislative voting of January 2006. Both Israel and the U.S. had supported the candidates of the Palestinian National Authority, which is guided by the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), a coalition of political parties of which Fatah is the leading component.

Sanctions were transformed into a stultifying siege a year later after Hamas won a virtual civil war against Fatah in Gaza, despite Washington's gift of $60 million to Fatah for training and weapons with which to crush Hamas. Since that time Hamas has ruled Gaza, and the PNA has ruled the larger occupied Palestinian territory of the West Bank, with partial and occasionally coercive support from Washington and Tel-Aviv.

The blockade was so severe that the entire population of the Gaza Strip was in effect incarcerated within the small territory for the last three years. Though many foods were not allowed into Gaza, and the caloric intake was lowered, no one starved to death. That was the blockade's single saving grace. Paper and soap, cement, mattresses, machinery, toys, and thousands of other goods have been denied the people of Gaza. Cement is especially important if the territory is ever to rebuild after the IDF has reduced many of its homes, commercial buildings, industrial plants, and government offices to rubble.

AP reported that Israel announced July 5 it was lifting the ban on nearly all consumer goods and other items but will "continue to ban most travel and exports and restrict the import of desperately needed construction materials. The new rules are unlikely to restore the territory's devastated economy or allow rebuilding of all that was destroyed in last year's war." Hamas denounced the new regulations because, despite being somewhat eased, it's still a blockade.

Israel, the military superpower of the Middle East, launched a brief and punishing war against Lebanon and Gaza in the summer of 2006, generating international criticism. World opinion was outraged again in December 2008 when the Israel Defense Force returned to unprotected Gaza, ostensibly in retaliation for rocket attacks, and slaughtered 1,417 Palestinians, overwhelmingly civilians, and wounded another 5,500. Israel lost 14 people, nearly all soldiers.

(Hamas was carrying out a cease-fire for months before the attack until Israel broke the truce, which is why Tel-Aviv's justifying cry of "the rockets, the rockets," rang hollow in anti-colonial quarters.)

The plight of the people of Gaza generated support for them from around the world. The Free Gaza Movement coalition of pro-Palestine groups organized nine attempts to challenge the Israeli blockade by sending ships with humanitarian supplies toward Gaza from August 2008 to May 31, 2010. None carried weapons of any kind. All were repelled by Israel to maintain the sanctity of mass privation as an instrument of state coercion.

This May the Free Gaza Movement was joined by the Turkish Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief (IHH) in sending six ships and 663 pro-Palestinian passengers from 37 different countries to challenge the blockade. The ships, loaded with non-military supplies, combined to form a flotilla near the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, and set a course for Gaza May 30. Many of the passengers had received training in nonviolence. They had no guns or bombs.

Israeli military vessels and helicopters interdicted the flotilla on the high seas about 60 miles from the coast of the Gaza Strip. Even if the ships managed to enter territorial waters, it would have been Palestinian, not Israeli, territory, it should be noted. Heavily armed IDF Special Forces troops illegally boarded the vessels and took command. Five of the ships were subdued quickly without deaths to passengers.

The sixth and by far largest ship, the Turkish vessel Mavi Marmara, purchased earlier this year by the IHH charity, was boarded by commandos rappelling menacingly from hovering helicopters as navy speedboats circled the ship. A few passengers resisted the intruders, as they -- in the opinion of many -- had every right to do in international seas. They were brave and paid with their lives.

The commandos shot and killed nine people -- some at such close range as to suggest they were murdered. One of the slain was a U.S. citizen, Furkan Doğan, a Turkish-American youth of 19. It is probable that some of the dead and wounded were unresisting when bullets entered their bodies. One IDF sergeant, who claimed he shot six civilians, said they were all "terrorists."

The Israeli government did not plan to kill members of the humanitarian flotilla. But it created a situation where if one element of its elaborately staged act of aggression went wrong all hell would, and did, break lose.

Why didn't Defense Secretary Ehud Barak, author of the famous embellishment that the IDF was "the most moral army in the world," insist that the commandos be instructed beforehand in how to respond rationally to the possibility of encountering non-armed resistance from a few passengers?

News of the shootings immediately subjected Israel -- with its already existing human rights violations toward the Palestinians -- to intense international opprobrium. In return, the Netanyahu government's propaganda apparatus subjected the world to a plethora of self-justifications -- almost all untrue or at least gross exaggerations, but evidently good enough for the White House and Congress.

The world was told that the well-armed commandos were "lynched." They were pummeled with "bats." There were 50 "Turkish soldiers" aboard the Mavi Marmara. Later, this was changed to "75 al-Qaeda mercenaries." The ship, said Netanyahu, was a "hate boat." Many defenders of Israel in the U.S. still prefer to believe these and other tall tales. One would think that if there were 75 members of al-Qaeda aboard the big Turkish ship that they would have been arrested and punished when they were brought to Israel. How odd, then, no one was arrested -- not those who "lynched" the innocent commandos, the "bat" wielders, the "Turkish soldiers," or the "terrorist mercenaries."

Perhaps the lowest blow in this entire propaganda charade is the information from Time magazine that "the stuttering official response to the flotilla fiasco" included "among the many videos featuring radio traffic that the IDF posted online, the most obviously inflammatory -- in which a voice, allegedly from a flotilla radio transmission, can be heard snarling, 'Go back to Auschwitz'." It was, according to Time and several other sources, an "obviously edited" remark, interpolated into the tape by government propagandists -- "PR amateurs," according to a columnist in the Tel-Aviv daily Yedioth Ahronoth, the widest circulation newspaper in Israel.

Learning of the attack by armed Israeli commandos, the well known American author and poet Alice Walker wrote in support of "defenseless peace activists carrying aid to Gaza who tried to fend them off using chairs and sticks. I am thankful to know what it means to be good; I know that the people of the Freedom Flotilla are... some of the best people on earth. They have not stood silently by and watched the destruction of others, brutally, sustained, without offering themselves, weaponless except for their bodies, to the situation."

The UN Security Council did manage to pass a resolution calling for a thorough and objective international investigation of the flotilla incident, but Tel-Aviv refused to cooperate, insisting on conducting its own probe. It is said the Obama Administration arranged a compromise: in return for a partial lifting of the embargo Israel would be permitted to conduct the investigation into its own actions without outside interference.

The Obama Administration termed an Israeli self-investigation "an important step forward" -- forward toward what was left blank, but self-exoneration seems likely. Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu declared that "We have no trust at all that Israel, a country that has carried out such an attack on a civilian convoy in international waters, will conduct an impartial investigation."

Given the travesty of the probe carried out by Israel after its Winter 2008-2009 attack on Gaza, and its subsequent rejection — shamefully supported by Congress and the White House -- of the UN's impartial Goldstone Report critical of Israeli actions, there is little doubt the new investigation, which got underway June 28, will be a whitewash unless the rules are changed.

Netanyahu ventured recently that the investigation "will prove that the goals and actions of the state of Israel and the Israeli military were appropriate defensive actions in accordance with the highest international standards." That will be precisely the outcome if he has his way, but obstacles have arisen.

A speedboat escorts the Mavi Marmara near the southern port of Ashdod after the raid by Israeli commandos. Photo by Menahem Kahana / AFP / Getty Images.

Many influential Israelis were dubious about a self-investigation, and there was widespread media criticism in Israel about how the probe will be conducted -- far more than in the U.S. media, which is usually uncritical of anything the Israeli government does. In the words of the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz, the investigation seems "more and more like a farce." Gush Shalom, the Peace Bloc, has petitioned the court system to broaden the investigation and its mandate.

Then, according to Haaretz June 30, retired justice Yaakov Tirkel, who was named to head the investigation, "told the government the committee could not do its job without expanded investigative powers." He "wants to turn it into a full-fledged governmental inquiry committee with real teeth. That would allow it to subpoena witnesses and documents, warn those who testify before it that the panel's findings could harm them, and hire outside experts in relevant fields."

On July 4 Netanyahu's cabinet agreed to a limited number of changes. They included adding two experts to the panel, and said it now agreed to placing witnesses under oath. The investigation is still an in-house affair with notable restrictions, such as not being allowed to question the IDF commandos who attacked the Mavi Marmara.

Israel has claimed to be the victim of several different "existential" threats over the years, the latest being from Iran, but as we have noted before, the Zionist State faces only one existential threat -- losing Washington's support. Knowing this, Israel and its dedicated American supporters invest a huge amount of time, effort and money courting American public opinion, working diligently to elect pro-Israel politicians, and assiduously cultivating its backers in the White House and Congress.

Despite the American government's unceasing support for Israel, the majority of the Israeli population is wary of the Obama Administration, though American Jews are generally supportive. For instance, according to a June poll conducted on behalf of the B’nai B’rith World Center in Jerusalem, "65% of Jewish Israelis say U.S. Jews should criticize Obama's Mideast policy." This is based in large part on an incorrect analysis of the Obama Administration's policy toward the Muslim world, its willingness to "talk" to Teheran, and some signs of impatience with Netanyahu. Here's our view of these three matters:
  1. It is obvious that President Obama's overture to the Muslim world during his Cairo speech a year ago was a public relations gesture representing no substantial change in American policy, other than in rhetoric. The purpose was to deflect mounting criticism of the U.S. from the global Islamic religious community of over a billion adherents while he wages and widens wars in several Muslim countries. The objective, to speak frankly, was to strengthen imperialism, not weaken Israel.

  2. Obama's tone toward Iran is less belligerent than that of his predecessor, but his policies (such as the new sanctions) rival those of President George W. Bush. Indeed, they seem to be worse, judging by the dangerously increased U.S. Navy activity in the Persian Gulf and nearby waters, plus the grave buildup of war supplies at the U.S. base in the Indian Ocean.

  3. Obama expects at least small concessions from Netanyahu, on settlements for example, in return for Washington's unstinting protection -- the purpose being to strengthen America's hold over the Arab states.
The Israeli government is also furious at Washington because the final document emerging from the month-long review meeting at the United Nations in May on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) (1) urges Israel to sign the NPT treaty and (2) set a 2012 date for a regional conference on establishing the Middle East as a nuclear free territory. When the issue of Israel came up at the 2005 NPT review one of the reasons there was no final report was because the Bush Administration refused to sign any document that mentioned Israel.

Here is Israel's problem: By signing the NPT Israel would have to acknowledge it possesses a large supply of nuclear weapons or be held in noncompliance, thus revealing its many denials were lies to the entire world. Further, the 2012 conference of Middle East nations will no doubt agree to ban nuclear weapons from the region -- obliging Israel to dismantle its weapons, which is hardly likely, or expose itself as a nuclear outlaw.

There was simply too much at political stake in the nuclear conference for the United States to once again seek to scuttle the talks, especially on one of its main issues — proliferation. The Israelis were perturbed, so the U.S. issued a statement critical of the meeting for not condemning Iran, which of course does not have nuclear weapons.

Not only the White House but both Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate overwhelmingly support Israel and many show contempt for the oppressed Palestinians.

In a mid-June article published in Foreign Policy in Focus, Stephen Zunes wrote:
Democratic congressional leaders were lining up alongside their Republican colleagues to defend the Israeli assault. Countering the broad consensus of international legal scholars who recognize that the attack was in flagrant violation of international norms, prominent Democrats embraced the Orwellian notion that Israel’s raid... was somehow an act of self-defense. The offensive by the Democratic leadership has been led by Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.), who serves as House Democrats’ unofficial spokesman on Middle East policy.... According to Ackerman, the killings were "wholly the fault and responsibility of the organizers of the effort to break through Israel and Egypt’s legitimate closure of terrorist-controlled Gaza."
Nearly all New York State members of Congress have issued statements supporting the ultra-right Netanyahu regime during the flotilla affair. New York Rep. Jerrold Nadler commented: It has been absolutely galling to watch the hypocrisy and the fury, the undeserved fury directed at Israel for taking a step in its own self defense." Said the Hudson Valley's Rep. John Hall: "I will keep working hard in Congress to ensure that Israel continues to have the full support and backing of the United States."

In late June, 87 out of 100 Senators and 307 out of 435 Representatives signed a letter to President Obama about the flotilla attack, declaring "We fully support Israel’s right to self-defense," arguing that "the Israeli commandos who arrived on the sixth ship [the Mavi Marmara]... were brutally attacked with iron rods, knives, and broken glass. They were forced to respond to that attack and we regret the loss of life that resulted."

The letter also commended Obama for the "action you took to prevent the adoption of an unfair United Nations Security Council resolution, which would have represented a rush to judgment by the international community."

Three Congressmen in particular took strong stands against the Israeli attack — Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.), Rep. Keith Ellison (DFL-Minn.), and Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio). Kucinich wrote a letter to President Obama saying "The United States must remind Israel... it is not acceptable to repeatedly violate international law... [or] to shoot and kill innocent civilians... [or] to continue a blockade which denies humanitarian relief."

In April, according to an article by Ben Smith in Politico, 76 Senators and 333 Representatives "signed on to a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton implicitly rebuking the Obama Administration for its confrontational stance toward Israel," as though the White House had not backed down virtually every time Netanyahu waved a disapproving finger in Obama's face, or publicly embarrassed visiting Vice President Biden.

The Congressional letter blamed the Palestinians for the breakdown in talks and the lack of progress in solving key issues, noting "by contrast Israel’s prime minister stated categorically that he is eager to begin unconditional peace negotiations with the Palestinians."

Israel's unwillingness to work toward a genuine two-state settlement (or a one-state agreement with equality for all), and Washington's one-sided political, economic and military support for Israel, constitute the primary obstacles to peace between the two sides. But there are two other significant problems confronting the Palestinians as well.

(More to come.)

[Jack A. Smith was editor of the Guardian -- for decades the nation's preeminent leftist newsweekly -- that closed shop in 1992. Smith now edits the Hudson Valley Activist Newsletter, where this series also appears.
  • Go here for Part 1 of this series.
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