The regional and international fall-out from Israel’s response to the Freedom Flotilla aid shipments for blockade Gaza has thrown into sharp relief the fractured politics of the region. In this paper, a seasoned and engaged commentator on the Middle East, himself involved as an ecumenical, legal and political consultant to the historic churches, looks at the claims and counter-claims involved; the reality of the blockade; the implications for Israel and its critics; and the apparent winners and losers in the Flotilla stand-off.
“To the living we owe respect, but to the dead we owe only the truth.” – Première Lettre sur Oedipe, Voltaire (1694-1778)
It has been played out endlessly on most television channels, with knowledgeable as well as purblind analysts pitching in. The Freedom Flotilla, that is: an international convoy of six ships, three bearing passengers and three with roughly 10,000 tonnes of cargo, which was organised by the Free Gaza Movement, a worldwide coalition of Palestine solidarity activists that grew out of an initial effort in August 2008 to bring hearing aids for Gazans deafened by the sonic booms of Israeli warplanes. Subsequent convoys delivered other goods despite Israeli navy attempts to deter them.
In June 2009, however, Israel interdicted the Greek-registered ship Arion and diverted it to the port of Ashdod. Things took a dramatic turn for the worse during the predawn hours of 31 May 2010 when Israeli commandos abseiled from helicopters onto the deck of the Turkish-flagged ship Mavi Marmara – part of the flotilla with almost 700 activists from 32 countries on board, almost half of them Turkish nationals – some 85 miles west of the Israeli shore of Haifa.
The ensuing confrontation led to nine deaths – all Turkish, with one young man holding dual American and Turkish citizenships – and raised an international hue and cry about the Israeli assault. The flotilla was followed by the MV Rachel Corrie on 4 June, with 20 people on board including Irish Nobel Prize winner Mairéad Maguire and former UN assistant Secretary-General Denis Halliday and it too was boarded by Israeli units and moored at Ashdod.
1. Gaza today
What is Gaza today? This question is key to the whole episode since Israeli governmental sources constantly claim there are no humanitarian shortages on this strip of land and that it is taking care of the needs of those gaoled Palestinians.
Gaza houses over 1.4 million Palestinian residents of whom 80 per cent are refugees. Today, a similar percentage of this population relies on international aid organisations for their daily sustenance (whilst that number was only 10% a mere decade ago). According to WHO and UNICEF statistics that I have for 2009, malnutrition in children reached 10.2 per cent and critical medicines were not available. 77.2 per cent of Gazans either face or are vulnerable to hunger; of these, 65 per cent being children younger than 18. Sixty-seven per cent of young people are jobless compared to 42 per cent of the overall workforce, 61 per cent of households in Gaza depend on food aid and 70 per cent of families live on less than 1 US$ a day per person. These numbers have reportedly worsened since the data was collated due to subsequent Israeli and Egyptian crackdowns on the smuggling of goods through tunnels underneath the Gaza-Egypt border.
If we were to transpose those Gaza figures onto any EU country or onto developing countries across any continent, would the international community be referring to desperate emergency situations, or would it still remain complacent? Yet, since 2007, Israel has increasingly tightened its blockade on Gaza and marketed it as a blockade against Hamas.
2. Questions about the flotilla
Leaving universal precepts and natural law aside, any observer should agree that the misery being imposed upon the hapless residents of Gaza is unsustainable in the long run. However, observers might well wonder why the activists aboard those ships did not take up the Israeli offer of having the aid supplies delivered to Gaza once they had been inspected by Israel. After all, they would have fulfilled their duty, and the goods would have reached their destinations.
It can be argued that this approach errs in two ways. The first is that the activists aboard those ships knew full well – as do international donors, NGO’s and CRO’s – that the Israeli authorities would implement an administrative ruling that hampers the delivery of any number of those items to Gaza on the grounds that the strip is run by Hamas and the Jewish state qualifies this movement as terrorism. By this logic, the Freedom Flotilla activists also surmised – correctly – that the cement they were carrying for the reconstruction of the 6,400 Palestinian homes razed or damaged during Operation Iron Cast Lead (Mivtza Oferet Yetzuka in Hebrew) against Gaza in December 2008-January 2009 will have been confiscated too.
One can question the flaccid logic behind such a rationale for security, particularly since no organisation seems actually to have seen this Israeli list. Yet, scanning the items compiled by Gisha, an Israeli human rights organisation founded in 2005 and whose goal is to protect the freedom of movement of Palestinians, it becomes (un)clear why Israel for instance blocks from Gaza items such as notebooks, blank paper, writing utensils, chocolate, fruit juices and fishing rods let alone coriander and cilantro but not cinnamon. Does this have to do with security or with sheer arbitrariness? The partial, though incomplete loosening of the blockade seems to acknowledge this, under considerable pressure.
3. The reality of the blockade
Having said this, it does not appear to be the case that anybody is starving in Gaza at the moment. There is a prosperous and usurious tunnel economy whose industry has evolved over many years and has become the main unlawful economic channel for most goods into Gaza. But not only is Egypt increasingly restricting movement within those tunnels, the goods that in fact enter the strip and end up on the shelves of shops and supermarkets cannot be purchased by the population who simply have no money since their earning potential is being squeezed out by the Israeli blockade.
So the question is not whether one should crack down on Hamas or check-mate it. After all, many Palestinians are themselves virulently opposed to the politics of this movement anyway – and human rights advocates do not see eye-to-eye with them either. But the bigger question – for the larger good – at this stage is whether the blockade has actually been working? Is it weakening Hamas? Or is it just punishing the ordinary and destitute residents of Gaza, and in the process ironically diverting attention away from the treatment by Hamas of the Gazan population, let alone its ascendant radicalism, land confiscations and alarming misogyny – and also its shelling of northern Israel with 3,300 puny rockets and its refusal to date to accept Israel’s right to exist? Is it not patently clear that the blockade is not only unjust and unacceptable but that it is also against peace and even against Israeli long-term security?
4. Propaganda and beyond
The indomitable and spin-masterly Mark Regev, the spokesperson for the present and previous prime ministers of Israel, never misses an opportunity these days to remind his viewers or listeners that the Freedom Flotilla was not a humanitarian convoy but a propaganda tool. We may actually agree with Mr Regev, since the activists (among others) were aware that the operation – as much as previous ones since 2008 – was not merely a humanitarian exercise on the high seas, but also a public relations battle between Israeli policies and Palestinian aspirations. On the one side, activists sought to expose Israeli collective punishment of a civilian population in Gaza, whilst the Israeli side strove to keep the reality of its blockade hidden through nuances, fear-mongering and – in some instances – frankly inane absurdities.
But is the world simply fiddling Nero-like while Rome burns? Much of the Arab World and most EU countries are either politically somnolent or else contributing with financial assistance and with mere expressions of rue and sorrow, whilst the USA is consistently supporting, or else defending, Israeli oppressive measures. So is it any wonder that in the absence of anything other than regular conferences or palliative words, it fell upon civil society to uphold the noble traditions of non-violent resistance and international solidarity? Activists took to the high seas last month in the dual hope that their supplies might make a miniscule difference to Gazans – if they got through – and that they might also rumble the stifling inertia and vested interests of our politicians by forcing their hands into action.
The fact that the Free Gaza Movement benefited from the logistical or financial help of a Turkish Islamic charity – the Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief (Insani Yardim Vakfi, known by its acronym IHH) – is pretty much irrelevant for the purposes of this particular assessment. After all, the IHH might not be everyone’s cup of political tea (and I certainly do not subscribe to some of its political stances), but they are recognised by the Turkish government since 1995, have consultative membership to ECOSOC, do a lot of charity work worldwide and are winners of different awards such as the Turkish Parliamentary Award of Honour. The fact that some of us might disagree with them – even vehemently so in some cases – does not turn them into unmitigated terrorists as some naïve commentators or observers would wish to suggest today. Perhaps if other parties were willing to step in with equal assistance, IHH would not have become so vital for this – or other – initiatives.
As the editors of Middle East Report Online suggested on 1 June 2010, in their in-depth analysis, the web-site of this pan-coalition movement had stated that the activists were motivated by a desire to “break the siege of Gaza” and “raise international awareness” of the plight of Gazans. In one of eight “points of unity” on the site, the group members pledged, “We agree to adhere to the principles of non-violence and non-violent resistance in word and deed at all times.”
In fact, Norman Paech, a lawyer, former parliamentary member of the Die Linke leftist opposition party in the German Bundestag and one of the activists on the Mavi Marmara affirmed that, “There were no knives, no axes and no pistols” on board. These tactics, expressing activists’ frustration with the official inaction of the international community on Palestine and aiming to embarrass Israel in the global media, are in line with the peaceful campaigns of Palestinians and Israelis. After all, is this not also the strategy being pursued to stop construction by Israel of its separation wall? Do they incidentally not also resemble the goals of the International Solidarity Movement that housed internationals with locals in the West Bank (and, previously in Gaza) as witnesses to the everyday excesses of occupation?
The sad part is that it cannot be asserted that those ships will manage to tilt the balance of the political argument. True, they may elicit some sparse measures in response to the EU official meetings at Brussels and Luxembourg. The USA will also mildly rap Israel on the knuckles but it is also likely to use this incident as a quid pro quo for obtaining other concessions from Israel. The Arab World will vent its linguistic spleen with populist denunciations. And then things might well go back to ‘same old, same old’. Those ships should become more than purveyors of supplies; they should also compel a discussion on policy that Israel desperately wants to avoid at a time when its international reputation is rather low. But what is perhaps sadder still is that this flotilla would not have even grabbed the world attention had it not been for the attack by Israel that led to nine deaths and coerced the world into some reaction.
5. An international perspective
What about the international implications and legal dimensions of this episode? As Yousef Munayyer, director of the Palestine Center in Washington DC wrote last week, the proverbial ball is now clearly in the court of the international community. The siege on Gaza must end now and Israel must face the consequences of its violation of international law. As such, an independent / impartial / international / UN-led inquiry is quintessential to exploring in detail those tragic events in the Mediterranean. The UN Secretary-General floated the idea of an international panel, headed by Geoffrey Palmer, a former prime minister of New Zealand, and including representatives from Turkey, Israel and the USA, but Israel has already rejected this proposal. Yet it is difficult to comprehend why Israel – or any party – would oppose such an enquiry if they are totally convinced of the integrity of their case.
However, one major problem is that Israel is one country amongst others that tends to reject even the best of judicial enquiries. This is evidenced by its reaction to Judge Richard Goldstone’s 500-page report of September 2009 when, alongside the USA and the Palestinian Authority, it managed to mothball it and turn a legal affidavit into mere verbiage on costly paper. However, as an analyst opined a few days ago, there are still defining moments when history marks a positive difference: India, with the Amritsar massacre in 1919, South Africa with the Sharpeville massacre and the USA with the lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till in 1955. In each of those cases, the perpetrators tried to portray the victims as terrorists or criminals, but people of conscience resisted such impunity and changed the path of social history.
In view of the meta-narrative over what occurred on board the Mavi Marmara, the Israeli operation was clearly wrong from a legal standpoint: Israel qualifies as aggressor since the raid occurred in international waters and it therefore violated the convoy’s right of free navigation. Richard Falk, an international legal scholar and the UN Special Rapporteur for the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT), asserted that the raid was “clearly a criminal act, being on the high seas…. The people on these boats would have some right of self-defence.” no matter who threw the first punch. However, it is also important to point out that this cannot be labelled an ‘act of piracy’, as has been claimed by some politicians or pundits, since a state cannot commit piracy according to maritime law.
For many of us, it is difficult to claim to know what happened minute-by-minute aboard the ship. It is possible there was a scuffle, or even a series of scuffles. But the disproportionate response of the Israeli units put paid to any Israeli argument of legitimate self-defence. As Henning Mankell, the best-selling Swedish author of Wallander
6. Israel’s accountability
But is Israel accountable for what happens to Gaza and its residents today? After all, it is a counter-intuitive statement, is it not, when one recalls that Ariel Sharon, the then prime minister of Israel, withdrew his ground troops and dismantled settlements in 2005? Why should Israel labour for the welfare of an enemy entity, when an Arab country like Egypt opens and closes Sesame-like the Rafah border crossings at will and at moment(s) of its own choosing?
Like many prominent jurists, legal scholars and learned editors, I too would add that the argument about a lack of accountability by Israel is wrong under international law. Under customary international law, accepted as binding by Israel, a territory is “occupied” when foreign forces exercise “effective control” over it, whether accomplished through the continuous presence of ground troops or not. Today, Israel patrols the territorial waters and airspace of the Gaza Strip, regulates its land borders, restricts internal movements by excluding Gazans from a “buffer zone” that includes 46 per cent of its agricultural land, and controls the supplies of electricity, heating oil, and petrol. One would therefore posit that such factors together amount ipso facto to remote, albeit effective, control and that Gaza remains under occupation. This also remains the position of the UN, the US Administration and the International Committee of the Red Cross.
So whilst Israel enjoys authority to halt arms’ imports into Gaza, it also has obligations enshrined in the international legal framework of the 4th Geneva Convention of 1949. Article 33 clearly prohibits collective punishment, whereas Article 55 imposes upon it, as an Occupying Power, the duty of ensuring the food and medical supplies to the population, and by the same token. Article 56 refers to the duty of ensuring and maintaining, with the cooperation of national and local authorities, the medical and hospital establishments and services, public health and hygiene in the occupied territory.
7. A wider assessment
In an editorial entitled ,em>An Assault, Cloaked in Peace that appeared recently in the New York Times, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, HE Michael B Oren, wrote:
Israel has a right and a duty to defend itself from Hamas and its backers. Our struggle is not with the people of Gaza but only with the radical regime that overthrew the legitimate Palestinian Authority and has pledged to seek Israel’s destruction. Each day, Israel facilitates the passage into Gaza of more than 100 truckloads of food and medicine – there is no shortage of either. We, too, want a free Gaza – a Gaza liberated from brutal Hamas rule – as well as an Israel freed from terrorist threats.
Israel will scrupulously review the events surrounding the Marmara’s interception. But Israel will also persist in denying advanced weaponry to Hamas. At the same time, the Israeli government will vigorously pursue peace with the Palestinian Authority, which shares our need for defense against armed extremists. The real peace activists are those who support our vision of a two-state solution, not those supporting the terrorists bent on destroying it.
Irrespective of the professional glibness susurrating throughout his piece, one may agree with the ambassador that Israel should be ever-mindful of its genuine security and that the review of events surrounding the Mavi Marmara interception should be scrupulous (and hence impartial). However, three observations should be made to Ambassador Oren:
1. If the struggle is not with the people of Gaza, but with Hamas, why is it that the Israeli blockade policies are causing the large-scale attrition of ordinary Gazans alone? And is Hamas still seeking the destruction of Israel when your government ministers are on record as having confirmed a temporary ceasefire – a tahdi’a or hudna in Arabic – that kept the Israel-Gaza front quiescent from 19 June till 19 December 2008?
2. If there is no shortage of food and medicine, why is it that every single international agency claims that Gaza in severely under-supplied due to the blockade and that the people are suffering en masse in the process?
3. Promises by Israel to pursue peace with the Palestinian Authority are tautological and at times assume mythic proportions. After having rid the region of Yasser Arafat, and initially welcomed Mahmoud Abbas, Israeli deliberate inaction on the peace front has unfortunately emasculated the latter, marginalised him in the eyes of some key observers and even exposed him to accusations of being a quisling from his people. If Israel can manage to achieve this with one of the most irenic and dogmatically anti-violence politicians within the Palestinian political stable, does it still have the right to claim it wishes to pursue peace? With whom?
Another recent editorial in the New York Times entitled ‘A Botched Raid, a Vital Embargo’, by Daniel Gordis from Jerusalem, also stands out. Gordis is vice president of the Shalem Center (Mercaz Shalem), a research and education institute and author of Saving Israel: How the Jewish People Can Win a War That May Never End. He says:
Our problem is that though most Israelis want peace with two states – one Jewish and one Palestinian, living side by side – we cannot find anyone to make a deal with us. A decade ago, President Bill Clinton and Prime Minister Ehud Barak, tried, but Yasir Arafat, the Palestinian leader, walked away. Now the supposedly moderate Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah, refuses to negotiate, as of course does Hamas.
In this context, it is worth attending to two facts. The first is almost historical and relates to the time I was personally involved with the Oslo-led peace negotiations on behalf of all the Churches of Jerusalem. Had the Camp David Accords been accepted by Yasser Arafat, I am confident they would have led to his political (if not physical) demise as a traitor to the Palestinian cause. The accords will indeed have delivered a Palestinian state, but it will have been the Swiss cheese version that was neither sovereign nor contiguous and therefore not viable. Even President Clinton acknowledged it ex post facto when he produced his subsequent Clinton Parameters. But PM Ehud Barak had by then abandoned the talks in order to fight the Knesset elections of 6 February 2001 that he lost in favour of Ariel Sharon.
The second fact reflects the subtle nuances of political writing that assume psychological overtones. Do note the last sentence of Mr Gordis’ paragraph when he refers to the supposedly moderate Palestinian leader. A ‘real’ moderate, may we suppose, would only be one who embraces the Zionist philosophy in toto and offers the whole land to Israel for a hug?
My own political zeitgeist peaked in 2008 when I almost dared to hope that the previous prime minister of Israel, Ehud Olmert, could strike a deal with PNA president Mahmoud Abbas over a draft agreement that also included land swaps. I came to know Mr Olmert a little when he was mayor of Jerusalem and a political ‘hawk’. His later political stances within Kadima might have resulted in a breakthrough if only both sides – Palestinian and Israeli – had overstepped the fearful psychological unknown. That, alas, is history too even though Israeli politicians and their allies never tire from referring to the “missed opportunities” for peace due to supposed Palestinian intransigence. Perhaps they should also examine closely their own unconscionable positions and be less beholden to vested interests or expansionist ideologies.
8. Future and medium-term implications
How does one define the outcome and future medium-term implications of the Gaza “mishap” as Farrah Zughni described it recently?
On 31 May 2010, HRH Prince El Hassan bin Talal of Jordan issued a statement about the deadly attack on the Mavi Marmara. Ever the visionary peacemaker and inveterate long-term thinker in a region not famous for either attribute, two short paragraphs from Prince Hassan’s statement of outrage caught my eye in that they crystallise the misfortunes of the Middle East region as it fails – or is driven to fail – to tackle collectively the challenges facing it:
I say controversial because the convoy carrying international citizens and travelling in international waters, left ports of countries with which Israel has diplomatic relations. What this suggests is that perhaps Israel is seeking total isolation to justify continued violence leading to further pre-emptive strikes and a regional war. Regardless of its current motivations, Israel has taught us that in the past when pressured diplomatically, its preferred recourse is the use of arms.
It is not surprising that this region is devoid of an international “conference for security and cooperation” because it is obvious that there is a lack of belief in the concept of security and cooperation. Rather the focus is on the strong controlling the weak.
How true. It is this overweening and inductive logic of violence Prince Hassan is referring to that often leads to absurd and tragic endings. And one such absurd ending, the deadly incident in the Mediterranean, is what the Israeli Ha’aretz daily headlined clearly last week when it wrote that the “Gaza Flotilla Drives Israel Into a Sea of Stupidity”.
But it also remains clear to many people, as it did to Nicholas D Kristof in his editorial ‘Saving Israel From Itself’ in the New York Times, that Israeli hard-line policies are depleting America’s international political capital as well as their own. General David Petræus noted two months ago that the perception that the United States favours Israel breeds anti-Americanism and bolsters Al-Qa’eda.
The director of Mossad, Meir Dagan, was quoted in the Israeli press as making the point more succinctly: “Israel”, he warned, “is gradually turning from an asset to the United States to a burden.” But will America – from its Administration to its Congress, Senate and evangelical church-based constituencies – come to realise that an honest broker cannot be one that ineluctably supports one side at the expense of the other. To use an Americanism, ‘tough love’ might well be politically appropriate at some point. Yet when Fareed Zakaria from CNN was interviewing Elliott Abrams, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, the latter called the Turkish foreign minister a liar over his Mavi Marmara allegations, clashed with Peter Beinart over the liberal Jewish political influence in America and then dubbed some fifty activists on the ship as jihadis. His only thought seemed the defence of Israel, even if it came at the expense of the defence American interests. This interview encapsulates the fearsome clout Israel enjoys in some US loci – namely on the Hill – and therefore its brazen postures, let alone our failure to find an equitable resolution of the Middle East / Israeli-Palestinian conflicts.
So who might we estimate to be the other losers and winners?
The US Administration is one loser, since it has become clear to many people across the world – even to pessoptimists like myself – that President Obama has not managed to follow through with his famous Cairo speech of 4 June 2009 when he pledged a new beginning between the US and Muslims worldwide and a desire to improve the battered American image in the Middle East. Other than nice words and eloquent gestures, he has not said much to date, and when he did – such as when he demanded a 100 per cent freeze on settlement from Israel – he failed to carry it through.
Another loser is the Arab World along with its much-battered nationalist narrative – alas, a recurrent reality for the region – as it underlines the inability of much of its leadership to face up to the new challenges ahead. Moreover, Iran has also seen the political rug pulled from under its feet. Indeed, Turkey today is focusing on its rebounding economic might and political muscle to define and help shape the emerging regional centres of gravity. Not only has it endeared itself to the Palestinian, Arab and Muslim masses, it has also helped reassure Sunnis in the face of a perceived Shi’ia onslaught and in the process, loosened up the division of the region into extremists and moderates, rejectionists and accommodators of Western policies. In fact, its political initiatives with Hamas, as well as in Lebanon, Iran, Syria and even Somalia, mean that the Arab World might come closer to overlooking the yoke of Turkish Ottoman occupation over four centuries and perhaps even overcome some of its suspicions over fresh Turkish neo-Ottoman ambitions in the region.
A word of caution needs to be inserted, however. Turkey is far from a perfect nation-state today, as it faces many problems that go nowhere near its avowed “zero-problems” foreign policy. They range from the Kurdish problem to that of its minorities within the country – namely Greeks and Armenians – and also extend toward the stalled EU negotiations over 23 [out of 35] accession chapters as well as its policies in the Southern Caucasus (namely with Armenia). More profoundly, though, Turkey today is facing an identity crisis between its Kemalist ideals on the one hand and its resurgent Islamist roots on the other. Nonetheless, its foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu seems to be translating quite deftly the tenets of his 2001 book – Stratejik Derinlik – on the strategic depth doctrine of Turkish foreign policy. How Turkey plays its cards and manages those variables in the next decade will define its future geo-strategic significance.
Another word of caution is indicated by the news that Israeli university students are trying to launch a ‘counter-flotilla’ toward Turkey in order to assist Kurds and Armenians in the country. Much though we may applaud their young pioneering instincts, we may also disagree that the posited ‘equivalence’ between Palestinians in Gaza and Armenians or Greeks in Turkey stands up to close scrutiny. Besides, for a country that has constantly sided with Turkey in denying the Armenian genocide of 1915, Israel cannot expect Armenians to embrace warmly its less than Damascene political conversion.
9. Concluding remarks
In a recent article on the Al-Jazeera English website, the veteran journalist Lamis Andoni qualified arrogance, fear and weakness as the three new trademarks of the Israeli political leadership today. Perhaps so, but Michael Chabon’s book The Yiddish Policemen’s Union also offers a few words to qualify this botched raid too. In Yiddish, seichel means wisdom, but it also connotes ingenuity, creativity, subtlety and nuance. Jews, who can name Maimonides, Einstein, Barenboim and even Lansky amongst their own, have often been attributed – and at times quite rightly – with seichel-like qualities that have cleverly helped them survive many adversities. However, recent Israeli governments lack any seichel but rather live in a Chelm – a town inhabited, according to Ashkenazi Jewish folklore, entirely by fools. But those political Chelmites are today swatting the inbred hopes of a whole people and depriving them ruthlessly of their inalienable human rights and basic fundamental freedoms. In the process, they are also contributing to an increasingly volatile and raddled region. Will they wake up? Equally importantly, will we?
As Uri Avnery, former member of the Knesset, and leader of Gush Shalom, says: No one in the world will believe the lies and excuses which the government and army spokesmen come up with.