Late last night, Israel attacked a flotilla of ships in international waters carrying food, medicine and other aid to Gaza, killing at least 10 civilians on board and injuring at least 30 more (many reports now put the numbers at 19 dead and 60 injured). The Israeli Defense Forces is claiming that its soldiers were attacked with clubs, knives and "handguns" when they boarded the ship without permission, but none of the Israeli soldiers were killed while two are reported injured. Those on the ships emphatically state that the IDF came on board shooting (though see this video and discussion here, as well as this). An IDF spokesman said: "Our initial findings show that at least 10 convoy participants were killed."
The six-ship flotilla was carrying 10,000 tons of humanitarian aid along with 600 people, all civilians, which included 1976 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mairead Corrigan Maguire of Northern Ireland and European legislators; an elderly Holocaust survivor, Hedy Epstein, 85, was scheduled to be among those on the ship but remained in Cyprus. In December, 2008, Israel, citing rocket attacks from Hamas, launched a 22-day, barbaric attack on Gaza, bombarding a trapped population, killing hundreds of innocent civilians (1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed), and devastating Gazan society. A U.N. report released earlier this month documented that, as a result of the blockade imposed on Gaza by Israel and Egypt (the two largest recipients of U.S. aid), "[m]ost of the property and infrastructure damaged . . . was still unrepaired 12 months later."
The flotilla attacked by Israel last night was carrying materials such as cement, water purifiers, and other building materials, much of which Israel refuses to let pass into Gaza. At the end of 2009, a U.N. report found that "insufficient food and medicine is reaching Gazans, producing a further deterioration of the mental and physical health of the entire civilian population since Israel launched Operation Cast Lead against the territory," and also "blamed the blockade for continued breakdowns of the electricity and sanitation systems due to the Israeli refusal to let spare parts needed for repair get through the crossings."
It hardly seemed possible for Israel -- after its brutal devastation of Gaza and its ongoing blockade -- to engage in more heinous and repugnant crimes. But by attacking a flotilla in international waters carrying humanitarian aid, and slaughtering at least 10 people, Israel has managed to do exactly that. If Israel's goal were to provoke as much disgust and contempt for it as possible, it's hard to imagine how it could be doing a better job.
It is appropriate that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is scheduled to meet with President Obama on Tuesday in Washington, because -- as always -- it is only American protection of Israel that permits the Israelis to engage in conduct like this. Initial reports speculate that Netanyahu would cancel that meeting in order to return to Israel in light of this attack. But there would be something quite symbolically appropriate about having the U.S. stand at the side of Israel in the aftermath of this latest massacre, because it is only the massive amounts of U.S. financial and military aid, and endless diplomatic protection, that enables Israel to act with impunity as a rogue and inhumane state. So complete is the devotion of the U.S. Congress to the mission of serving and protecting Israel that it even overwhelmingly condemned the Goldstone report, which found that Israel and Hamas had both commited war crimes and possibly crimes against humanity during the Israeli attack on Gaza (the U.S. Congress, of course, never condemned the Israeli war crimes themselves -- only the Report which documented those crimes). Israeli actions are a direction reflection on, and by-product of, the U.S. Government, because it is the U.S. which enables and protects the behavior.
The one silver lining from these incidents is that the real face of Israel becomes increasingly revealed and undeniable. Not even the most intense propaganda systems can prettify a lethal military attack on ships carrying civilians and humanitarian aid to people living in some of the most wretched and tragic conditions anywhere in the world. It is crystal clear to anyone who looks what Israel has become, and the only question left is how will the rest of the world -- beginning with their American patrons -- will react.
As Americans suffer extreme cuts in education for their own children and a further deterioration in basic economic security (including Social Security), will they continue to acquiesce to the transfer of billions of dollars every year to the Israelis, who -- unlike Americans -- enjoy full, universal health care coverage? How is the revulsion justifiably provoked by this latest Israeli crime going to impact American efforts in the Muslim world (as but one of many examples to come, Al Jazeera reports that "Moqtada al-Sadr has called for a large anti-Israel rally across from the Green Zone in Baghdad")? How much longer will Americans be willing to pay the extreme prices for its endlessly entangled "alliance" with its prime Middle Eastern client state, whose capacity for criminal and inhumane acts appears limitless?
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On a day when the meaning of "heroism" is often discussed, the people on these ships who tried to deliver aid to Gazans, knowing that they could easily find themselves in a confrontation with the Israeli Navy but doing it anyway in order to bring attention to the extraordinary injustice and cruelty of the blockade, are pure, unadulterated heroes.
UPDATE: Regarding the blockade of Gaza itself -- about which "Dov Weisglass, an adviser to Ehud Olmert, the Israeli Prime Minister [said when it was first imposed]: 'The idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger'" -- this post documents just some of the effects, with ample links to U.N. reports, including:
* since the intensification of the siege in June 2007, "the formal economy in Gaza has collapsed" (More than 80 UN and aid agencies [.pdf])
* "61% of people in the Gaza Strip are … food insecure," of which "65% are children under 18 years" (UN FAO)
* since June 2007, "the number of Palestine refugees unable to access food and lacking the means to purchase even the most basic items, such as soap, school stationery and safe drinking water, has tripled" (UNRWA)
* "in February 2009, the level of anemia in babies (9-12 months) was as high as 65.5%" (UN FAO)
The Washington Post's Jackson Diehl, whose entire political world view is shaped by his devotion to Israel, today criticizes President Obama for rejecting "Bush's conclusion that the promotion of democracy and human rights is inseparable from the tasks of defeating al-Qaeda and establishing a workable international order." That's ironic, because if "human rights" played any role whatsoever in American foreign policy, the massive American aid and other protection for Israel which Diehl cherishes above all else would instantaneously disappear.
UPDATE II: Just ponder what we'd be hearing if Iran had raided a humanitarian ship in international waters and killed 15 or so civilians aboard.
UPDATE III: One of the ships attacked by Israel belonged to a Turkish aid organization, and it's been reported that among the dead are at least two Turks. Turkey today "warned that further supply vessels will be sent to Gaza, escorted by the Turkish Navy." Among other things, Turkey is a NATO member with increasing tensions with Israel. Its Prime Minister today condemned the Israeli action as "state terrorism." Amidst worldwide protests aimed at Israel, along with possible internal unrest if (as has been reported) an Israeli Arab leader was among the wounded or dead, it's possible that this incident could produce some serious unforeseen consequences for the Israelis.
UPDATE IV: So, to recap what seems thus far to be the central claim of Israel apologists: Israel is the official Owner of international waters (which is where the flotilla was when it was attacked). As such, they have the right to issue orders to ships in international waters, and everyone on board those ships is required to obey and submit. Anyone who fails to do so, or anyone in the vicinity of those who fail to do so, can be shot and killed and get what they deserve.
What's so odd about that is that the U.S. has been spending a fair amount of time recently condemning exactly such acts as "piracy" and demanding "that those who commit acts of piracy are held accountable for their crimes." When exactly did Israel acquire the right not only to rule over Gaza and the West Bank, but international waters as well? Their rights as sovereign are expanding faster than the BP oil spill.
UPDATE V: Israel's foreign minister is now actually claiming that attempts to deliver humanitarian aid to Gaza are "an attack on Israel's sovereignty." Is that supposed to be some kind of a joke? The only claim that I can recall that's remotely comparable is when the U.S. General serving as Commander of Guantanamo condemned suicides by three detainees there as an "act of asymmetric warfare waged against us." The U.S. and Israel are very adept at claiming victimhood: even when they're killing large numbers of civilians and locking people up in cages with no charges, they're the ones who are the suffering, wronged parties.
Thus, there are at least 10-20 dead passengers and 50-60 wounded on those ships -- compared to no Israeli fatalities and virtually no wounded -- but it's the passengers, delivering humanitarian aid in international waters when Israel seized their ships, who are the aggressors and were "attacking Israeli sovereignty." The only thing worse than this claim is how many apologists for Israel will start parroting it (see Andrew Sullivan for more refutation of the claim that it was the passengers who were somehow the "aggressors").
UPDATE VI: Among the countries condemning Israel for its attack are Russia, Turkey, India, China, Brazil, France, Spain and many more. By stark contrast, the White House issued a statement which conspicuously refused to condemn the Israelis (Obama "expressed deep regret at the loss of life in today’s incident, and concern for the wounded"), while the U.S. State Department actually hinted at condemning the civilians delivering the aid ("we support expanding the flow of goods to the people of Gaza. But this must be done in a spirit of cooperation, not confrontation").
Obama's call for "learning all the facts and circumstances" is reasonable enough, but all these other countries made clear that this attack could never be justified based on what is already indisputably known: namely, that the ship attacked by Israel was in international waters and it resulted in the deaths and injuries to dozens of civilians, but no Israeli soldiers were killed and a tiny handful injured. In any event, Obama's neutrality will have to give way to a definitive statement one way or the other, and soon.
UPDATE VII: The formal statement submitted to the U.N. by the U.S. Ambassador today rather clearly seeks to blame everyone -- from Hamas to those attempting to deliver the aid -- for what happened: everyone, that is, except for the party which actually did the illegal seizing of the ship and the killing (Israel):
As I stated in the Chamber in December 2008, when we were confronted by a similar situation, mechanisms exist for the transfer of humanitarian assistance to Gaza by member states and groups that want to do so. These non-provocative and non-confrontational mechanisms should be the ones used for the benefit of all those in Gaza. Direct delivery by sea is neither appropriate nor responsible, and certainly not effective, under the circumstances. . . . We will continue to engage the Israelis on a daily basis to expand the scope and type of goods allowed into Gaza to address the full range of the population’s humanitarian and recovery needs. Hamas’ interference with international assistance shipments and the work of nongovernmental organizations complicates efforts in Gaza. Its continued arms smuggling and commitment to terrorism undermines security and prosperity for Palestinians and Israelis alike.
Given that the Israelis refuse to allow anything other than the most minimal "necessities" to enter Gaza, I'd love to know what "non-provocative and non-confrontational mechanisms" exist to deliver humanitarian assistance? And it's extraordinary that we refuse to condemn a blockade that, as classic "collective punishment," is a clear violation of the Geneva Conventions, and even refuse to condemn today's violent seizure of ships in international water. But, of course, the central rule of American politics is that Israel cannot be criticized, even as the rest of the world condemns it. How do you think the rest of the world will perceive the U.S.'s extreme, out-of-step protection of the Israelis, while subtly (or not-so-subtly) heaping the blame on the victims of its aggression?