Israel's Latest Violation by Stephen Zunes
Source Dave Anderson
Date 10/06/03/06:57
Israel's Latest Violation
by Stephen Zunes

EVERY TIME ISRAEL'S right-wing government engages in yet another
outrageous violation of international legal norms, it is easy to
think, "No way are they going to get away with it this time!" And yet,
thanks to the White House, Congress and leading American pundits,
somehow, they do.

Israel's attack on an unarmed flotilla of humanitarian aid vessels in
the eastern Mediterranean — resulting in more than a dozen fatalities,
the wounding of scores of passengers and crew, and the kidnapping of
750 others — has so far not proven any different.

Violation of Maritime Law

The bottom line is that under no circumstances does Israel, or any
other country, have the right to board humanitarian aid vessels, guns
blazing, in international waters. By most definitions, this is piracy,
pure and simple. International maritime law gives the crew of ships
attacked in international waters the right to defend themselves.
Certainly it would have been better if the largely Turkish crew of the
ship where most of the fatalities took place had not fought back. But
it was well within their legal right to do so.

Israel's actions raise a number of questions. Why didn't the Israelis
simply disable the rudders and guide the ships to port? Why did they
have to board the ships with the guns blazing — according to
eyewitnesses, before some members of the crew picked up their
"weapons" of wrenches and poles — unless they intended to kill people?

In any case, now that Israel is finally releasing the first few
humanitarian aid volunteers that they captured, the Israeli version
that the commandoes acted in self-defense — repeatedly cited without
question in the mainstream U.S. media — turns out to be false. "No one
in the world will believe the lies and excuses which the government
and army spokesmen come up with," observed Uri Avnery, journalist and
former Israeli Knesset member.

However, apologists in Washington for Israel's right-wing government
are already repeating the Israeli line that the nonviolent activists
were "terrorists" and that they had "weapons" they found on board,
such as a wrench, a come-along winch, and other items commonly found
on ships. The Israeli government has withdrawn their earlier claims
that they had found pistols and other guns on board, but its U.S.
supporters are still repeating this lie. In reality, the "Freedom
Flotilla" — a convoy of six ships organized by a coalition of human
rights activists from Europe, North America, the Middle East, and
elsewhere — allowed people to take part in the "Freedom Flotilla,"
only on the grounds that they "agree to adhere to the principles of
non-violence and non-violent resistance in word and deed at all

Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY), whom the Democrats have chosen to lead the
House Subcommittee on the Middle East, claimed that the killings were
“wholly the fault and responsibility of the organizers of the effort
to break through Israel and Egypt’s legitimate closure of
terrorist-controlled Gaza.” Insisting that Israel’s act of piracy on
the high seas was “a legal mission,” he claimed the humanitarian
relief effort was actually “for the benefit of Hamas and as part of
the international effort to delegitimize Israel’s existence.”

Critics of the flotilla are partially correct in observing that the
purpose of the voyage was not just to deliver badly needed aid, but to
"provoke a confrontation." This, however, is part of the great
tradition of nonviolent direct action. For example, civil rights
activists in the 1960s were similarly criticized for provoking
confrontation by sitting in at lunch counters, marching across Selma's
Edmund Pettus Bridge, and demonstrating in downtown Birmingham. It was
only through such confrontations, revealing the brutality of the
oppressor, that change was made.

Washington's Tepid Response

The Obama administration does not appear to be very interested in
making change when it comes to its policies toward Israel. Indeed, the
U.S. response to this tragedy is very reminiscent of the U.S.-backed
Salvadoran junta's atrocities in the 1980s. For example, when the
U.S.-backed Salvadoran military murdered three American nuns and a
Catholic lay worker involved in humanitarian relief efforts, the
Reagan administration claimed that they were actually "political
activists" who may have engaged in "an exchange of fire" with the
Salvadoran soldiers, resulting in their deaths. Similarly, when the
junta arrested 60 humanitarian aid workers, the Reagan administration
defended the mass kidnapping on the grounds that the army had found
such "weapons" as sharp sticks and gasoline, in the church basement
where some of these aid workers had created a sanctuary for peasants
seeking refuge from government-backed death squads. That such objects
might have civilian uses was deemed irrelevant in an effort to depict
the church workers as supporters of terrorism.

The Israelis confiscated all of the passengers' cameras, laptops, cell
phones, and other personal devices. The world, therefore, can only see
some carefully edited versions from cameramen that accompanied the
Israeli commandos. What won't be seen, for example, will be the
accounts of eyewitnesses of commandos with stun guns assaulting
passengers who nonviolently formed a ring around the ship's bridge,
the savage beatings of elderly pacifists as they lay on the ground,
and other acts of excessive violence.

Russia, Turkey, India, China, Brazil, France, Spain, and many other
countries quickly and categorically condemned the attack on the
humanitarian convoy. By stark contrast, the White House issued a
statement that simply "expressed deep regret at the loss of life in
today's incident, and concern for the wounded." The White House did
not criticize Israel's actions. Meanwhile, the State Department
appeared to condemn the multinational effort to deliver medical
supplies and other humanitarian aid, saying that ""expanding the flow
of goods to the people of Gaza…must be done in a spirit of
cooperation, not confrontation."

Similarly, Obama's ambassador to the United Nations insisted that
those wishing to aid the people of Gaza should use "non-provocative
and non-confrontational mechanisms" and that "direct delivery by sea
is neither appropriate nor responsible." Given that Israel has
steadfastly refused efforts by the international community to provide
aid through "non-provocative and non-confrontational mechanisms," it
is unclear what the Obama administration suggests doing instead.

Had Barack Obama been in office at the time of the 1948 Soviet
blockade of Berlin instead of Harry Truman, would he have rejected
launching the airlift because he felt that addressing the humanitarian
crisis in West Berlin "must be done in a spirit of cooperation, not
confrontation," and that the West should use "non-provocative and
non-confrontational mechanisms?"

Perhaps a more revealing analogy would be this: Imagine how the Obama
administration would have reacted if the attack on the vessels had
been done by Iranians instead of the Israelis. Imagine if the Iranians
had killed the passengers and crew, kidnapped hundreds of people on
the ships, brought them to Iran, and held them incommunicado. It's not
likely that the White House would give the Iranians a free ride for
such a blatant violation of international law. Nor would the media and
Washington pundits be spewing out the Iranian account of events before
the hostages even had a chance to tell their side of the story.

At the United Nations, the United States successfully blocked the
Security Council from passing a resolution on the issue, accepting
only an endorsement of a statement by the Security Council president,
and then only after watering the statement down significantly. The
original draft statement condemned Israel for violating international
law, demanded an investigation by the United Nations, and insisted
that Israel prosecute those responsible for the raid and pay
compensation to the victims. However, the Obama administration refused
to accept such wording. Instead, the statement simply condemned "those
acts" that resulted in deaths, without naming Israel, implying that
the victims on board the ships shared responsibility for getting
killed when the Israelis engaged in an unprovoked attack on their
ships in international waters. Indeed, when White House Press
Secretary Robert Gibbs was specifically asked whether the United
States condemned Israeli conduct, he said that there was not enough
information to make such a determination.

The Security Council president's statement also called for "a
credible, impartial, and transparent investigation." The United
States, however, insisted that such an investigation should only be
done by the Israeli government itself. According to Deputy Permanent
Representative Alejandro Wolff, "We are convinced and support an
Israeli investigation...and have every confidence that Israel can
conduct a credible and impartial and transparent, prompt investigation
internally." However, according to recent reports by Amnesty
International and Human Rights Watch, the Netanyahu government has
failed miserably at conducting such credible investigations regarding
violations of human rights and international legal norms by their
forces. Surely, the Obama administration is aware of this. As a
result, this raises questions as to whether the Obama administration
even wants the truth to be known.

Indeed, Obama's response to this tragedy underscores the phoniness of
'his advocacy for human rights elsewhere in the Middle East. He is
quite willing to criticize the Iranian regime for killing nonviolent
activists on the streets of Tehran. But he excuses Israel for killing
nonviolent activists on the high seas.

Continued Siege of Gaza

In the meantime, Israel's siege on the Gaza Strip continues to take
its toll. Maintaining a strict embargo on arms and related materiel,
which could be used by Hamas against Israeli civilians, is quite
reasonable. But Israel's severe restriction on medicines, food, and
construction material needed to rebuild the thousands of homes — as
well as schools and medical facilities — destroyed in Israel's
three-week military offensive two and a half years ago is not.

The results have been tragic. For example, a report by more than 80 UN
and aid agencies notes how "the formal economy in Gaza has collapsed."
The UN Food and Agricultural Organization reported that "61 percent of
people in the Gaza Strip are…food insecure," of which "65 percent are
children under 18 years." The UN Relief Works Agency reports that "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" in the past three
years, and the level of anemia in babies (9-12 months) was as high as
65.5 percent."

The flotilla activists wanted to help relieve this suffering through
providing humanitarian aid. Instead of responding to the crisis in
Gaza, the Obama administration is shielding those responsible for the
murder, beatings, and kidnapping of the humanitarian activists.

The very people defending Israel's right to intercept these vessels
are the same ones who have been insisting that Israel no longer
occupies the Gaza Strip since the withdrawal of its colonists and
occupation forces from the territory in 2005. If that were really the
case, however, Israel would have no legal right to prevent ships
entering Gaza's waters. They can't have it both ways. They can either
acknowledge that the Gaza Strip remains occupied territory since
Israel has it under a sea blockade, or they can acknowledge that the
ships have a right to enter Gaza's port unimpeded.

Sunday's tragic incident is beginning to mobilize an outpouring of
opposition to continued U.S. support for Israel's right-wing
government. Polls show a majority of registered Democrats opposing
such unconditional support for Netanyahu's rightist government. We
must make clear to Democratic congressional candidates that we will
not support them in November unless they insist that Israeli
government — no more or less than any other government — be held
responsible for such egregious violence against civilians.

FPIF senior analyst Stephen Zunes is a professor at the University of
San Francisco.

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