Israeli commandos stop Peace Activists–But at what cost?

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"Faced with state terrorism we cannot be calm and silent…Killing innocent people and treating civilians as if they were terrorists are nothing but a degradation of humanity."

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, June 1, 2010.

Veterans of the Israel Defense Forces will someday be able to boast to their grandchildren of their famous victory in the Mediterranean Sea, when they successfully defended their country from a group of unarmed peace activists and humanitarian aid workers traveling aboard a group of slow-moving cargo boats. The aid flotilla that sailed from Turkish-controlled northern Cyprus was carrying 10,000 tons of humanitarian supplies intended for Gaza, one of the poorest places on earth. Since the raid took place in international waters, it was by definition an act of criminal piracy.

At 4 a.m. on May 31, while the boats were still well out to sea, Israeli commandos dropped onto the boats from helicopters, firing sound grenades, plastic bullets and, by many reports, live ammunition. When passengers on the Turkish vessel Mavi Marmara tried to resist, the attackers killed nine of them. All but one of the dead were Turkish members of Insani Yardim Vakfi (IHH), a charitable organization founded in 1992 to aid Bosnians and now active in 120 countries, including Haiti.

Dozens of those aboard were badly beaten by the Israelis, among them a cameraman who was clubbed in the eye with a rifle butt. Videos showed two of the soldiers repeatedly stomping on a man who was down, and then shooting him.The ship was turned into "a lake of blood," one woman reported. Dr. Mahmut Koskun said the commandos did not allow him to help the wounded aboard, and let at least one of the victims bleed to death.

All of the passengers were handcuffed and forced to lie face down on the deck for several hours. When the boats arrived in Ashdod, Israeli authorities seized their cargoes and arrested those aboard, including 15 journalists. All were eventually released, but not before Israel confiscated their video equipment and footage, cell phones, computers and notebooks, and put its own version of events before the world. The Israelis also confiscated the wallets of at least two passengers, who found when they returned home that their credit cards had been used.

Iara Lee, co-founder of San Francisco’s Caipirinha Foundation and a passenger aboard the Mavi Marmara, pointed out in a June 5 op-ed column for the San Francisco Chronicle that the Israeli navy could easily have approached the convoy in broad daylight and used nonviolent ways to disable the ships and tow them to shore. Less than a week later, the Israeli navy proved her point by intercepting the Rachel Corrie, an Irish vessel, and steering it to port at Ashdod.

A naval commander said anything that would serve Hamas for weapons would be confiscated, and the rest sent to Gaza. Israel’s definition of "weapons," however, is broad enough to include such items as chocolate, jam, pasta, schoolbooks, and building materials. John Ging, head of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), has urged the world to join in sending relief ships to Gaza, where he said Israeli bombing destroyed 98 percent of the area’s industrial capacity, the sanitary system is not yet repaired, and 80 percent of the population is dependent on food aid.

The one-sided naval encounter was in fact hardly a victory for Israel, which is now more isolated than ever. Hamas remains in full control of Gaza, and international pressure on Israel to lift the blockade has grown stronger. Several diplomats accused Israel of violating international law, pointing to U.N. Security Council Resolution 1860, which in 2009 called on Israel to lift the blockade and allow unfettered access to humanitarian aid for Gaza. Bradley Burston, a columnist for Haaretz, commented, "The siege is becoming Israel’s Vietnam."

Greece, Sweden, Spain and Denmark summoned Israel’s ambassadors and demanded an explanation. French Ambassador Gerard Araud condemned Israel’s "disproportionate use of force and violence," and British Prime Minister David Cameron called the raid "completely unacceptable" and called for an end to the blockade. Egypt, which along with the U.S. had supported the blockade, quickly reopened the Rafah crossing and joined in the international criticism.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s response to the charge that Israel had used excessive force was to rail against Iran and call the passengers on the boats "thugs." He asserted that if there were no blockade "hundreds of ships" would bring "thousands of missiles" from Iran aimed at Israel, and there would be "an Iranian port in Gaza." That theme quickly became part of Israel’s propaganda arsenal, with Israel Consul General Akiva Tor warning in the San Francisco Chronicle that "If we allow unfettered aid to the Gaza Strip, Gaza will become an Iranian-armed missile base on our doorstep."

Such statements bore no relation to reality, since inspectors can easily tell the difference between an Iranian missile and a box of spaghetti. In fact, as Israeli officials have repeatedly stated, the embargo was imposed for political reasons, to undermine popular support for Hamas. It is therefore an act of collective punishment and illegal under international law.

The U.S. alone refrained from criticizing Israel. President Barack Obama called the blockade "unsustainable" and pressed the need for peace, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged Israel to allow more goods into Gaza and conduct a "credible and transparent investigation," but neither condemned Israel’s latest use of force. When Israel rejected international demands for an independent investigation and instead appointed a commission of inquiry composed of three Israelis and two foreign observers, Washington hailed the announcement as "an important step forward." According to the White House statement, the Israeli commission "can meet the standard of a prompt, impartial, credible and transparent investigation." Haaretz, on the other hand, called the government effort to investigate itself "a farce."

The angriest response came from Turkey, which recalled its ambassador to Israel and said it would not restore normal relations with Israel until the blockade was ended. Tens of thousands of Turks marched through Istanbul on June 3 carrying coffins of the victims and shouting anti-Israel slogans and expressions of support for Hamas. The U.S. once again found itself in a difficult position because of its allegiance to Israel. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu bitterly reproached Washington for its failure to condemn the attack, saying, "It should not seem like a choice between Turkey and Israel. It should be a choice between right and wrong, between legal and illegal."

Davutoglu also accused the U.S. of pressuring the U.N. Security Council to adopt a watered-down resolution that, instead of blaming Israel, condemned only "the acts" that led to the loss of life. In targeting a Turkish vessel, Israel showed no similar regard for U.S. interests. Turkey, as a democratic Muslim state, has been a reliable U.S. ally in that part of the world and is indispensable in providing a base near its southern border for delivery of U.S. supplies on their way to Iraq. Washington’s unstinting support for Israel–”including the $1.9 billion recently given Israel for a new generation of naval assault ships–”is clearly an irritant to the Turkish government, which on June 8 signaled its independence from the U.S. by welcoming Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Istanbul to discuss nuclear policy.

Israeli peace activist Uri Avnery described the commando raid as an act of "disgrace, madness, and stupidity." Others called it a "blunder." But sending 100 heavily armed soldiers to confront a group of humanitarians was by no means aberrant behavior on Israel’s part. The killing of unarmed civilians is an all-too-familiar occurrence in Israel’s history, which includes the blowing up of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, the massacres at Deir Yassin, Kafr Kassem, and Sabra and Shatila, and a missile attack on a U.N. post in Lebanon that killed 100 refugees.

Despite Israel’s excesses, ties between Israel and the U.S. have remained untouchable. The Johnson administration responded to Israel’s 1967 attack on the USS Liberty with a whitewash rather than an impartial investigation, even though dozens of American crewmen were killed. As events unfolded off the coast of Gaza on May 31, White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel was in Israel celebrating his son’s bar mitzvah, and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu was preparing to go to Washington, where in the light of mended relations between the U.S. and Israel he could expect a warm welcome.

Obama’s plea last winter that Israel stop ousting Palestinians from East Jerusalem to make way for Jews so upset Nobel Laureate and professional Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel that he ran full-page ads in several American newspapers berating the president and calling Jerusalem "the heart of our heart, the soul of our soul." Obama repaid the slap with what Wiesel called "a nice Kosher lunch" at the White House. The ads, however, prompted a number of prominent Israelis to sign a letter to the New York Review of Books expressing "frustration, even outrage" at Wiesel’s distortion of the facts.

The signers described Jerusalem today not as the "sentimental abstraction" of Wiesel’s advertisement but as a sprawling city stretching from Ramallah to Bethlehem that Israel created after the 1967 war. The city is now "an unwieldy behemoth encircling dozens of Palestinian villages that were never part of Jerusalem," the letter said. "The government calls this artificial fabrication ‘Jerusalem’ in order to obviate any approaching chance for peace."

Thanks to Israel’s vocal and well-heeled American allies, Israel can bar critics such as 82-year-old retired Prof. Noam Chomsky from entering the country, and throw in jail scores of Palestinian nonviolent activists who speak out for human rights–”and still be praised in Congress and the media as "the Middle East’s only democracy." The power of Israel’s supporters has also forced a succession of American presidents to overlook Israel’s repeated sabotage of their peace efforts.

It may or may not be a coincidence that the violent confrontation at sea came just as the U.S.-brokered "proximity talks" were getting under way. Earlier this year Israel announced plans to build additional Jewish-only housing in East Jerusalem while Vice President Joe Biden was in Israel to discuss peace negotiations. That announcement prompted the Palestinians to withdraw from the talks. The fact that they did not do so after the recent violence may indicate a degree of hope on the part of President Mahmoud Abbas that Obama will make a serious effort to achieve an agreement the Palestinians can accept.

The June 3 statement by a U.S. official that "There is no question that we need a new approach to Gaza," is a hopeful sign. To be effective, however, a new approach would necessarily involve a major change in U.S. policy, one that involved recognizing Hamas as a legitimate negotiating partner, and a willingness to pressure Israel to accept a two-state solution based on its 1967 borders. The crucial question is whether Obama is willing to accept the political fallout such moves would incur.

The nature of the risk involved was indicated by the outpouring of support Israel received from pro-Israel Americans, who in editorial columns and letters to the editor found ways to justify an attack by armed commandos on boats carrying food and medicine to a desperately poor population. Israel’s vocal supporters have successfully portrayed Israel as a tiny nation whose very existence is threatened, while the supposedly vulnerable Israelis proceed with impunity to seize more Palestinian land for settlements, demolish Palestinian homes, and impose hundreds of restrictions aimed at stifling the Palestinian economy and driving out the population. In the words of Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy, "Not a day goes by without some threatening draft law, threatening declaration of deportation, political arrest, police violence, or incitement against would-be critics."

These are the realities that concerned Palestinians as U.S. envoy George J. Mitchell began shuttling between the two sides in late May. Yasser Abed Rabbo, an adviser to Abbas, said he had been assured that the indirect talks would focus on core issues such as settlements, the future of Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees, and final borders. Since the Israelis want to limit the talks to procedural matters there will be no quick solution.

As a gesture to Mitchell, Netanyahu pledged to freeze settlement construction in East Jerusalem for two years, but it was a promise not his to fulfill. The authority to approve building projects in Jerusalem belongs not to Netanyahu but to the mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat. Barkat already has approved construction of 50,000 new units sometime in the future, and when he visited Congress last spring he announced he would not stop construction in East Jerusalem regardless of whether it hurt U.S. peacemaking efforts. "There is no freeze," Barkat said. "We’re building the city for the residents."

The prospect is not hopeless, however. Many Israelis are aware that Israeli policies have left the country with few friends, and there are signs that the Israeli peace movement is reviving. Large crowds gathered in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem on June 5, the 43rd anniversary of the occupation, to demand an end to the blockade and for the relief ship the Rachel Corrie to be allowed to land in Gaza. The demonstrations were organized by the peace organization Gush Shalom, which sent out a call saying, "The government is devouring us. It’s time to save our society from ruin."

While Israelis were holding peace demonstrations, hundreds of Afghan men and women were meeting in Kabul to discuss ways of achieving peace. The gathering, called a jirga, called on the U.S. and NATO to release Afghan prisoners and stop house searches, arrests, and bombardments of civilian areas.The final document urged the Americans to remove Taliban leaders from their wanted list, and directed Afghan President Hamid Karzai to seek negotiations with the Taliban.

Delegates said the meeting was an important step toward peace, but they did so as thousands more American combat troops were pouring into Afghanistan to take part in a war that already has taken the lives of more than a thousand U.S. soldiers but has failed to defeat the Taliban.

The failure of current U.S. policy in Afghanistan and Israel leave Obama with a choice. He can keep America embroiled in endless overseas conflicts and as the enabler of an illegal occupation, or become an historic peacemaker. Choosing to confront Israel and withdraw U.S. combat troops from Afghanistan might mean giving up a second term as president, but if he is willing to risk other people’s lives in war he should surely be willing to risk his own political career for peace.

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