As a sign of how bad a mistake Israel made when its commandos boarded the Gaza bound ship Mavi Marmara on May 31 consider what Slate columnist Christopher Hitchens, a former liberal who moved rightward after 9/11 wrote yesterday:
The near-incredible stupidity of the Israeli airborne descent on the good ship Mavi Marmara, by troops well-enough equipped to shoot when panicked but not well-enough prepared to contain or subdue a preplanned riot, has now generated much more coverage and comment than Erdogan’s cynical recent decision to become a partner in the nuclear maneuvers of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Israeli self-pity over Gaza—”You fire rockets at us! And after all we’ve done for you!”—may be incredibly unappetizing. An occupation that should never have been allowed in the first place was protracted until it became obviously unbearable for all concerned and then turned into a scuttle. The misery and shame of that history cannot be effaced by mere withdrawal or healed by the delivery of aid. It can only really be canceled by a good-faith agreement to create a Palestinian state.
Sad to say we have been down this road before with Israel. It does something wrong, countries and people object, and the pro-Israel crowd opens up the spin spigots, i.e., people who criticize Israel don’t understand that it is at war, that people who criticize are naïve leftists and terrorist travelers, or just plain old anti-Jewish bigots.
For an example of the last see what Rabbi Marvin Hier , dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in California, wrote in regard to White House correspondent Helen Thomas. Hier who frequently acts as a rabbinical equivalent of Jesse Jackson wrote, “Even the White House Correspondent, Helen Thomas thought it’s an opportune time to show off her bigotry telling the Jews to “get the hell out of Palestine” and “go back to Poland and Germany.” Helen, I got two things to say to you – first, the Jews are not in Palestine, they’re in the state of Israel where they belong and where their ancestors lived for two thousand years before Mohammed. Second, you’re the one who should go home – there should be no place for bigots in the White House press room.”
I find these arguments astonishingly unconvincing. Being Jewish myself let me first answer the age old question that arises among Jews when something notable happens involving us, namely is it good for Jews or bad for Jews. No question about it; this is bad for Jews.
Consider just a few points. A dual Turkish American citizen Furkan Dogan, 19 years old, was one of those killed aboard the Marmara. Early news reports said he had had one bullet in the chest and four bullets fired into his head from close range. That doesn’t sound like the sort of shots fired by soldiers being attacked. It sounds like the standard practice of commandos and covert ops personnel worldwide. In snap shooting, the target is the centre of the body mass – i.e., the abdomen. Being hit by a large caliber, subsonic round is normally adequate to stop the perpetrator. The main reason for shots to the head is to kill instantaneously, rather than immobilize, such as in the event of a suicide bomber. What it does not sound like is the shooting that is used as a last resort self defense measure.
More importantly, an American citizen has been killed. Does Israel and its supporters really believe that the United States should just stand aside and say nothing and let Dogan be branded as an activist, as if that is sufficient reason for killing him?
Another dismaying aspect is the fact that the Israeli assault confirms a transformation in Israel’s relationship to such individuals and the organizations they belong to. By attacking a humanitarian mission, even if it was consciously used by its organizers as much for public relations as humanitarian efforts, Israel has put itself squarely on the side of repressive regimes or violent militias, who often interpret the provision of relief and assistance to civilians as intervention on behalf of the enemy. It is a continuation of the trend that smeared Richard Goldstone, who authored the Goldstone report that criticized Israeli conduct in its was a three-week armed invasion, codenamed Operation Cast Lead, of the Gaza Strip during the winter of 2008–2009. With its naval assault Israel put itself on the same level as those who attack Red Cross or human-rights workers. No matter how you try to spin it this is wrong.
Insofar as the rationale that the blockade of Gaza is necessary and that ships cargo must be searched to prevent weapons reaching Hamas it has long been known that far more weapons are smuggled into Gaza via the tunnels under the Gaza-Egyptian border than are brought in by ship. And, more to the point, there were no weapons on the ship. The Israelis are no slouch in public relations. If there had been so much as a single AK-47 aboard we would be seeing it in endless video loops across the world.
And, the simple fact of the matter is that Israel had no right to attempt to board the ship in international waters. The humanitarian flotilla was in international waters, on the high seas. The principle of freedom of navigation is enshrined in international law, including in the Convention on the High Seas, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, and has attained the status of customary international law by which all states are bound. Under this principle, all states have the freedom to sail ships flying their flags on the high seas. Sovereignty over a ship is exclusive to the state whose flag the ship is flying. Any attempt to board the ship of another flag-state is therefore considered a breach of that state’s sovereignty.
Maritime blockades can not be imposed in international waters. Contrary to Israel’s assertions, maritime blockades must be restricted to ports or coastal areas under the enemy’s control, and may not be imposed in international waters. Israel’s attempt to impose and enforce its blockade in international waters was therefore illegal. Israel’s claim that it has a right to pursue a ship intending to breach its blockade from the time it begins its voyage, based on the so-called doctrine of continuous voyage, is a minority position in international law. Israel’s reliance on this questionable doctrine does not justify its attack on the humanitarian flotilla and its infliction of many casualties.
Given that Israel’s attack against the humanitarian flotilla was itself illegal, Israel’s claim that its commandos were acting in self-defense is unfounded. The principle of self-defense applies only when a state is repelling an attack against it. Certainly, the flotilla ships were not attacking the Israeli naval forces. Moreover, even if Israel did have a right to board the ships, its use of force in doing so was unnecessary and disproportionate to any threat the unarmed civilians aboard the ships may have posed. Given the belligerent nature of the attack against them, the civilians aboard the ship had every right to defend themselves against the overwhelming force of the Israeli commandos.
Fare more important, however, is that the strategic reason for the blockade, i.e., to weaken and ultimately make the Gaza Palestinians reject Hamas is a failure. Ever since Hamas was elected into power in a fair election Israel has been furious and sought to pressure the Palestinians to overthrow Hamas. As Dov Weisglass, an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, told the Israeli media in early 2006, “The idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger.” But Hamas is not weakened; quite the contrary. In fact it has been strengthened. This was entirely predictable. Generally, when a population is under attack it clings to the government in power, no matter what its faults.
And the coverage of the assault by most major media lends credence to Sarah Pailin’s description of it as the “lamestream media.” It says something disturbing about the American media when there is more critical – and by that I mean skeptical, as in good journalism – coverage of the assault in the Israeli media than there is in the American.
For those who don’t remember history what Israel did is uncomfortably similar to the case of the Exodus. As Israeli columnist Uri Avnery wrote on Sunday, that ship left France in 1947 with the hope of breaking the British blockade, which was imposed to prevent ships loaded with Holocaust survivors from reaching the shores of Palestine.
If it had been allowed to reach the country, the illegal immigrants would have come ashore and the British would have sent them to detention camps in Cyprus, as they had done before. Nobody would have taken any notice of the episode for more than two days.
But the person in charge was Ernest Bevin, a Labour Party leader, an arrogant, rude and power-loving British minister. He was not about to let a bunch of Jews dictate to him. He decided to teach them a lesson the entire world would witness. “This is a provocation!” he exclaimed, and of course he was right. The main aim was indeed to create a provocation, in order to draw the eyes of the world to the British blockade.
What followed is well known: the episode dragged on and on, one stupidity led to another, the whole world sympathized with the passengers. But the British did not give in and paid the price. A heavy price.
Many believe that the “Exodus” incident was the turning point in the struggle for the creation of the State of Israel. Britain collapsed under the weight of international condemnation and decided to give up its mandate over Palestine. There were, of course, many more weighty reasons for this decision, but the “Exodus” proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back.
I AM not the only one who was reminded of this episode this week. Actually, it was almost impossible not to be reminded of it, especially for those of us who lived in Palestine at the time and witnessed it.
There are, of course, important differences. Then the passengers were Holocaust survivors, this time they were peace activists from all over the world. But then and now the world saw heavily armed soldiers brutally attack unarmed passengers, who resist with everything that comes to hand, sticks and bare hands. Then and now it happened on the high seas – 40 km from the shore then, 65 km now.
In retrospect, the British behavior throughout the affair seems incredibly stupid. But Bevin was no fool, and the British officers who commanded the action were not nincompoops. After all, they had just finished a World War on the winning side.
If they behaved with complete folly from beginning to end, it was the result of arrogance, insensitivity and boundless contempt for world public opinion.
Ehud Barak is the Israeli Bevin. He is not a fool, either, nor are our top brass. But they are responsible for a chain of acts of folly, the disastrous implications of which are hard to assess. Former minister and present commentator Yossi Sarid called the ministerial “committee of seven”, which decides on security matters, “seven idiots” – and I must protest. It is an insult to idiots.
Israel would do well to recognize that its increasing myopic approach to geopolitics, as in treating ever problem as if it were a nail that needs to be beaten down is self-defeating.