Israel’s actions today were unjustified. In launching an operation to take control of the flotilla of ships seeking to take aid and materials to , an operation in which at least 10 people died, the Israeli army has behaved in an entirely unjustified manner.

Some may think my language excessively moderate. Others have already used term like ‘massacre’ ‘war crimes’ ‘barbaric attack’ and variations on these. I avoid them because I believe that where Israel/Palestine is concerned it is best to lower, rather than raise the volume, to deal in facts rather than in slogans. If nothing else, easy slogans make it too easy for the defenders of Israel to ignore the critique. In this case, where the facts so clearly fail to justify the IDF’s behaviour, we need to make full use of them.

The flotilla was the latest attempt in the campaign, led by the Free Gaza Campaign, to break the blockade of Gaza. There have been several ships sent during Israel’s 3 year blockade (of which more below), and while most have been stopped, some have been allowed through (see here ) in moments when the Israeli government decided to be a little more tactical, or perhaps more importantly, before Benjamin Netanyahu became Prime Minister.  The Flotilla, the latest of such attempts, was bringing in necessary

“cement & building materials, medicine & medical equipment, wheelchairs, school & art supplies, playground & sports equipment”

Israeli spokespeople have claimed that in reality, there is no blockade, and had the activists simply brought their cargo to an Israeli port, Israel would then have brought them to Gaza. This is disingenuous. While Israel is allowing in what it terms humanitarian aid, the amount, and items allowed in are strictly controlled. It is estimated that the permitted deliveries to Gaza represent a mere 20% of imports before the blockade began in 2007, and that’s without considering the greater need for materials for reconstruction due to the war of January 2009. Just as importantly, Israel bans all materials for building for entering Gaza, including cement and glass. The reason is to make it impossible for Hamas operatives to build more weapons, but has the effect of stopping Gazans from rebuilding their houses, schools and public building, or from restoring any semblance of normal life.  It would be one thing for Israel to stop actual weapons from entering Gaza; quite another to ban materials that are necessary for maintaining society.

Within Israel’s stated policy of maintaining the blockade, they had the option of simply stopping it from reaching Gaza. They could have sent naval ships to surround the flotilla, enclosing it, and then, once it acquiesced, escorting it to the Israeli port of Ashdod. If, following such an action, the flotilla had fired upon the navy, showing that it was seriously armed, the IDF would have been then justified in taking control of the ships, being then, a more genuinely self-defensive act. Why did they not do this? Presumably, because it could have led to an embarrassing stalemate, and kept the issue in the news for the several days it might take to resolve. Ironic, given the terrible publicity they have now received.

Instead of this, Israel opted to send in soldiers to take control of the ship, in international waters, making the act entirely illegal. In taking such action, in the middle of the night, it was almost inevitable that there would be resistance, and with it, the risk of fatalities. Perhaps if the organisers had been absolute saints, carefully trained in non violent resistance, the deaths could have been avoided. Certainly the activists should have been more fastidious in ensuring they gave no provocation to the Israeli troops. There can be no justification in illegally invading a ship, an action which is extremely likely to lead to injury and death, in a situation where the ship is not attacking you, is not carrying arms and has no violent intent.

Despite this seemingly clear-cut case, the Israel PR machine is rapidly whirring into action. Here are some of the arguments they’ve been making:

The people on the ship are hardly human rights activists. They are anti Israel protesters, some of which are part of Islamist groups that support Hamas. If they were really only interested in delivering goods they’d have handed them over to the Israeli authorities.

I’ve dealt with the latter point above; the Israeli authorities would not have let in the majority of the cargo, only the elements which it deemed acceptable. As to the motivations of the activists, lets assume, charitably, that Israel is right, that most of them are Islamic fundamentalists who have a hate for the state of Israel. So what? That doesn’t change the fundamental analysis. They were (until the Israeli army hijacked the ship) behaving entirely peaceably. Their motivations, and their biographies, are irrelevant and a flagrant attempt to distract and confuse.

The activists attacked the soldiers with knives and metal bars. The soldiers only fired in self-defence.

This was not an armed ship. If the activists were planning for an armed encounter with the IDF they would have brought actual arms with which to fight.  By the Israeli’s admission, 5 of the 6 boats were captured without any resistance, demonstrating the non-violent intent of the vast majority of the protestors. A small minority clearly used improvised weapons to try to fend off the soldiers, who were armed with guns. Such resistance is understandable, if indeed misguided and unacceptable. It would have been a miracle  if nobody on board had tried to resist. Lets imagine that instead of using any knives or bars the protestors had simply tried to block in the soldiers, to try to prevent them from taking over the ship. That would have been textbook non-violent resistance, and the right thing to do. The soldiers would then presumably have tried to force their way through, in order to gain control of the ship. Given the fact that the soldiers were armed, and given the confusion that inevitably accompanies a 4am raid, it would have been absolutely miraculous if no-one had got hurt.  I’m not blaming the soldiers, they were clearly in an impossible position. The risk of injury, and possibly deaths, was intrinsic to the decision of the IDF to invade the ship, and not just an outcome of the behaviour of the protestors.

The protestors aim was not simply to deliver aid, but to ‘break the siege of Gaza’. They were clearly warned over the radio that they were forbidden from entering Gazan waters. They announced that they still intended to do so. Because of this illegal intent, the protestors clearly brought on the violence themselves.

This is the heart of the matter. The position of the Israeli authorities is that it is illegal (under Israeli law) to bring materials into Gaza outside Israel’s extremely limited import allowance mentioned above. Anyone trying to do that, and with it trying to remind public opinion of the blockade, is doing an illegal act and must suffer the consequences. If you believe that the blockade is justified and is necessary for Israel’s security perhaps this argument holds weight. However the blockade does not boost Israel’s security and is totally unjustified.

Following Ariel Sharon’s ‘disengagement’ from Gaza in 2005, Israel has never allowed Gaza’s borders to be fully open for imports and exports. There was, at least, an agreement from 2005-6. When Hamas won the Palestinian elections in 2006 restrictions were tightened, and a full-blown blockade was imposed from 2007 when Hamas took control of Gaza following battles with Fatah. The continuation of that blockade was a key reason for Hamas continuing to fire rockets into southern Israel, leading to the war of January 2009. Hamas has consistently indicated that it is prepared to negotiate with Israel (and has done so regarding Gilad Shalit, and the truce of 2008) but has always argued that lifting the blockade must be part of such negotiations. During the truce of 2008, rocket attacks decreased (never entirely ending) but the blockade was never lifted, only very slightly eased . After the war in Gaza, there were many international calls for a comprehensive ceasefire, one that would included the lifting of the economic siege. Israel, however, preferred a vague ‘end of hostilities’ in which it avoid appearing to concede anything to the enemy. Israel refuses to negotiate with Hamas on the grounds that it is a fundamentalist, anti semitic organisation that is out to destroy Israel, and therefore the government argues that there can be nothing to talk about. In reality Hamas is diverse, containing both theological extremists and nationalist pragmatists. After winning power in 2006, and particularly while negotiating for a Palestinian unity government, its spokespeople regularly expressed their willingness to compromise, and to implicitly accept a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, without actually recognising Israel. These positions are just the start, in actual negotiations they might well go further, particularly if they were actually allowed to govern. They can hardly be blamed for refusing to recognise Israel before any negotiations take place, Fatah tried that and look how far it got them. In their refusal to negotiate, Israel is singing the old tunes of the Bush administration, failing to realise that things have radically changed.  It’s a truism, but the only way to achieve peace is to actually negotiate with your enemies.

The blockade then, is part and parcel of a policy of refusing to negotiate and deal with the legitimate demands that Hamas might represent, instead imposing massive hardship on the people of Gaza in the hope that it might lead to the collapse of the Hamas government. In 3 years this has not happened and is not likely to. The attempt to break the will of the Gazan people, by denying them any kind of normality, as a collective punishment for supporting Hamas has not had the desired outcome. Rather it is a key reason for the moves towards the ‘de-legitimization’ of Israel, a process about which Israelis are rightly so concerned.  Today’s actions are an unjustifiable attempt to maintain an indefensible policy. We can only hope that these casualties lead to a radical change of direction.

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