Israel’s attack on the Freedom Flotilla

There is a stunning precedent to Israel’s attack on the Freedom Flotilla which carried humanitarian aid for Gaza, which is under a three year-long blockade. In 1947, the ship Exodus 1947, carrying 4,500 Holocaust survivors, left France for Palestine, then under Britain’s “mandate” and also under a blockade. Britain stormed the ship on the high seas, killing three persons and injured scores. The passengers were removed, humiliated and deported to Germany. International outrage over the incident forced Britain to give up its “mandate”. The incident also spurred the creation of Israel. The Exodus was called “The Ship That Launched a Nation”.

In attacking the Mavi Marmara in the Freedom flotilla, Israel committed a condemnable act of illegal brigandage and suffered a loss of global legitimacy. The incident, in which nine people were killed, could prove a tipping point in Israel’s occupation of Palestine — if international opinion is powerfully mobilised.

The Israeli military wove a web of lies about the flotilla, alleging the presence of Al Qaeda in the ship. These stories didn’t sell. But Israel continues to assert that it exercised the “right of self-defence”. There can be no such right for heavily armed commandos attacking unarmed civilians in international waters.

The episode highlights the Israeli government’s criminal character and turns the limelight on the blockade of Gaza. Going by the strong reactions by many Western powers, the episode will further isolate Israel.

Israel’s behaviour, though shocking, was in line with its past conduct, including its increasingly inhuman occupation of Palestine and its propensity to deal with threats, real or imaginary, with military force — witness the 1981 attack on an Iraqi nuclear reactor under construction, and the 1982 and 2006 invasions of Lebanon.

No other country has defied as many Security Council resolutions as Israel. It maligns even its mildest critics as anti-Semitic. Paranoid Israel lives with a make-believe self-perception of victimhood, and is obsessed with security defined in anti-Palestinian terms.

Israel’s government today includes the far right and fascists such as foreign minister Avigdor Liebermann, who wants all Palestinians driven out of the West bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.

Israel has turned Gaza into the world’s largest open-air prison and systematically impoverished it. The blockade covers 2,000 items, including glass, paper, cancer medicine, toys and chocolate. The flotilla aimed to break the siege with 10,000 tonnes of relief material like wheelchairs, and pencils for schoolchildren, which are banned.

Over four-fifths of Gaza’s 1.5 million people are dependent on international food aid. Sixty-five per cent of them are children, of whom ten per cent are permanently stunted from undernourishment. In Gaza, unemployment runs at a crushing 50 per cent.

Gaza was left devastated by Israel’s invasion of December 2008, which killed 1,400 civilians, and damaged or destroyed 11,000 houses, 105 factories, 20 hospitals and clinics and 159 educational institutions. Of the 51,800 people displaced, 20,000 still remain homeless.

Karen Koning Abu Zayd, former head of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, says: “Gaza is on the threshold of [being] intentionally reduced to … abject destitution, with the knowledge, acquiescence and…encouragement of the international community.”

The blockade amounts to collective punishment of civilians under foreign military occupation, prohibited under international law. As UN Special Rapporteur for the Occupied Palestinian Territories Richard Falk, also an eminent US jurist, put it: such massive collective punishment “is a crime against humanity, as well as a gross violation of…Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention”.

The UN Fact-Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict led by South African jurist Richard Goldstone, also a Jew, concluded that Gaza’s blockade may amount to persecution, a crime against humanity. Israel attempted to discredit Goldstone.

Israel evidently prefers being seen as savage, rather than weak. But this makes little difference to Israel’s sworn enemies like Hamas and Hezbollah. And it deeply embarrasses Israel’s allies. The cost of defending Israel is steep and rising.

The Gaza siege has become a huge political liability and must be called off. But Israel is taking wantonly contrarian positions because it fears that if the siege ends, critical global attention on its occupation of Palestine will trigger its unravelling.

Contrarian behaviour comes naturally to Israel. For instance, it built close relations with apartheid South Africa. The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa, a just-published book by US-based scholar Sasha Pulakow-Suransky, documents how Israel sold arms to South Africa, then under international sanctions, and more crucially, clandestinely gave it nuclear weapons.

The nuclear deal was struck between South Africa’s defence minister PW Botha and Shimon Peres, then Israel’s defence minister, now its president. With Israel’s help, South Africa is believed to have made at least six nuclear weapons, which it destroyed when apartheid’s end became imminent.

Israel gets away with its consistently roguish behaviour primarily because of the United States’ support. This, in some respects, is a hangover from the Cold War when Israel was an important strategic ally. It no longer is. And the influence of the US’s legendarily powerful Zionist lobby is in decline.

Even American Jewish opinion is turning critical of Israel. About half the participants in recent anti-occupation demonstrations in the US were Jews.

The US would have earned much global goodwill, neutralised some jihadi opposition, and strengthened its own security had it criticised the flotilla attack.

Washington could yet shift its stance — if it finds the cost of cleaning up after Israel exorbitant. The recall of their ambassadors to Israel by many countries is a pointer in that same direction.

Israel has lost its only friend in the Islamic world, Turkey. Until recently, the two had close military relations both within and outside NATO. Turkey voted for Israel’s unfortunate entry into the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Turkey is an emerging regional power, which seeks a high profile. It recently agreed with Brazil to exchange slightly enriched uranium from Iran with medium-enriched material for its “research” reactor.

If Israel continues to ignore sane advice, it will be eventually reined the way apartheid South Africa was — by a combination of global sanctions and external pressure, with opposition from the Palestinians and sections of domestic and global Jewish opinion.

Falk urges: “It is time to insist on the end of the blockade of Gaza. The worldwide campaign of boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) against Israel is now a moral and political imperative…” He warns: “Unless prompt and decisive action is taken to challenge the Israeli approach to Gaza, all of us will be complicit in criminal policies that are challenging the survival of an entire beleaguered community.”

The BDS campaign is gaining momentum in many countries, but not in South Asia. India is building close relations with Israel, led by huge arms-purchase deals and counter-terrorism intelligence sharing. This is a historic blunder. India must fundamentally revise its approach to Israel. Pakistan too must cease and desist from holding clandestine talks with Israeli leaders.
This won’t happen unless South Asian political parties, civil society organisations and the intelligentsia launch a powerful BDS campaign, which demands a complete cessation of military purchases and joint ventures, a boycott of Israeli products, beginning with those made in the occupied territories, and sanctions. This campaign has become urgently imperative.
[Courtesy The News: Saturday, June 12, 2010m: By Praful Bidwai- The writer, a former newspaper editor, is a researcher and peace and human-rights activist based in Delhi. Email: prafulbidwai1]

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