Having worked on the issue of Israel and its myriad conflicts for many years, one gets used to tragedy and even to stunningly abhorrent behavior. And indeed, I have seen more than enough of both from all sides in this conflict.
But every once in a while, things take a turn, and that turn is punctuated by a singular, stunning event. The murderous raid on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla this day was one such event.
I waited to start writing this until there was some official statement from Israel. I did that because I want to start off with Israel’s explanation for this horror. Here’s what the IDF spokesperson said, in part:
During the intercept of the ships, the demonstrators onboard attacked the IDF Naval personnel with live fire and light weaponry including knives and clubs. Additionally one of the weapons used was grabbed from an IDF soldier. The demonstrators had clearly prepared their weapons in advance for this specific purpose.
As a result of this life-threatening and violent activity, naval forces employed riot dispersal means, including live fire. Reports from IDF forces on the scene are that it seems as if part of the participants onboard the ships were planning to lynch the forces.
I am sure, as is always the case, there will be those who believe this version of events. But frankly, I can’t see how anyone can do so unless they are so desperate to justify Israel’s action here that they’ll believe anything. Let’s examine the IDF’s version of events.
We begin with the point that these were civilian ships and Israel boarded them with commandoes—soldiers who are disposed toward combat situations and are not meant to police unarmed civilians. They’re fighters, that’s their purpose. But the IDF claims that an assortment of international activists deliberately provoked a violent confrontation (using potentially deadly weapons, but which still leave them ridiculously overmatched) against heavily armed and trained soldiers in order to “lynch them.”
Does that seem remotely credible? It only seems so if you believe the activists on board these ships were willing to risk and actually sacrifice their lives in order to create a scandal for Israel. Of course, Israeli hasbara (propaganda) is well-practiced in casting all Arabs and Muslims as suicidal lunatics, aided by the suicide bombers who represent an infinitesimal percentage of those populations. But this collection of international activists, including many Jews, Americans and Europeans, apparently are also willing to give their lives, and rather cheaply, according to this story.
No, the IDF version of these events doesn’t begin to pass the laugh test.
When I first heard confirmed reports of this massacre, I thought of the Kent State shootings in 1970. That horrific tragedy, like this one, was the result of a government using ridiculously disproportionate force against civil disobedience.
But at Kent State, the shootings resulted from high tensions and one person losing control, causing others to follow his lead. Was that the case here? I suppose one must allow the possibility, but the quick response of the government certainly gives the appearance that it was not that simple.
Friends and colleagues can tell you, I have been very critical of the Free Gaza Movement’s politics. Before this incident, I had criticized them for refusing to carry a letter and package from Noam Shalit to his son, Gilad. I’m familiar with many of the core activists and know some of them personally. I know their agenda is more than humanitarian; it is more than breaking the siege on Gaza, and it is more radical than I am comfortable with.
But I also know they are non-violent, and quite serious about that. They’re also not stupid, which any group of civilians would have to be to intentionally get into a violent clash with a significant military force. And while I may not be on the same page with them politically, they are entitled to their political views. And the action itself of breaking the blockade, carrying goods to the besieged Strip and showing some support for the million and a half innocent people of Gaza who bear the burden of this policy that has only strengthened Hamas is brave and positive.
The bottom line is that Israel raided these ships with commandoes, and the end result was a great deal of needless bloodshed. And apparently, according to the IDF spokesperson, as reported by journalist Gregg Carlstrom, they couldn’t even wait to do it until the ships had passed out of international waters, which makes it, if no explanation is forthcoming, an act of piracy as well.
Israel crossed a line today, in a way not dissimilar (though certainly of a much smaller scope, thankfully) to the line they crossed in their massive attack on Gaza in 2008-09. Whatever Israel’s detractors have said over the years, this incident, like Operation Cast Lead, was far beyond anything Israel has done in the past.
This was a shocking massacre, and there’s no way to pretty that up. These were people engaged in direct action of civil disobedience. True, the siege on Gaza should simply be lifted, but being that it’s there, yes, Israel can be expected to take action to stop the flotilla. But this doesn’t just go above and beyond and justification, it zooms light years past it.
The IDF talks of gunfire, but apparently the guns in question were taken from soldiers during the confrontation, not precipitating it, according to the IDF spokesperson’s statement: “According to reports from sea, on board the flotilla that was seeking to break the maritime closure on the Gaza Strip, IDF forces apprehended two violent activists holding pistols. The violent activists took these pistols from IDF forces and apparently opened fire on the soldiers as evident by the empty pistol magazines. ” All of this begins with the Israeli tactics used to raid the ships.
Israel’s excuses are weak. Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer told Ynet, “It was obvious to all that this was a media provocation, aimed at reaching a confrontation with Israel…We are not Shiite suicide attackers, and it is the soldiers’ duty to defend themselves.” If it wasn’t such a tragedy, I’d be rolling my eyes.
It is now up to the international community, and especially the United States, to take action. If the Obama Administration is to have any credibility left on this issue at all, it must forcefully denounce this action and call for an end to the siege of Gaza. The latter is not likely to happen, but the former is an absolute must. Without it, Obama will begin to be seen throughout not only the Arab and Muslim world, but also by Europe as little different from his predecessors on the Middle East issue.
No doubt as well the leaders of AIPAC, the ADL, AJC and similar groups will be quick to support the IDF’s absurd story here. The Jewish telegraphic Agency offers portent by simply parroting the IDF line and framing the incidents as “Protesters on ship bound for Gaza killed in rioting.”
We can do better, and we must. If there is to be any hope of stopping Israel from committing to this suicidal and murderous course it is on, and bringing its supporters around the world down with it, incidents like this must be denounced firmly, with calls for real accountability. This was a serious crime and it cannot be tolerated or excused away.