My following article appears in today in New Matilda:
The deadly attack by Israeli forces on the Gaza relief ships has provoked global outrage, writes Antony Loewenstein. Has Israel bitten off more than it can chew this time?
Within hours of Israel’s storming of the Gaza flotilla yesterday in international waters, Haaretz columnist Bradley Burston wrote that the over three-year siege of Gaza “is becoming Israel’s Vietnam”.
Some serious ramifications of the massacre are already clear. Today the UN General Assembly has called for the lifting of the blockade on the Strip and Israel faces the possibility of diplomatic isolation if a kind it has never felt before.
Turkey, once a close Muslim ally of the Jewish state, is fuming, and has called its actions “state terrorism”.
Yesterday’s event was shocking to even the most cynical watchers of the Middle East. The killing of up to 19 protestors with dozens of injuries aboard the Mavi Marmara ship, carrying around 600 activists, appeared chaotic and possibly premeditated.
The Israeli press is reporting that unnamed government ministers had received guarantees from the military that their action would end without casualties. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was continually briefed on the flotilla in the past weeks and presumably made a calculated decision on how to stop the more than 700 civilians making their way to the Gaza Strip. Israel had made continued threats against the ships for days.
Hailing from over 50 countries and bringing 10,000 tonnes of aid including food, medicines, cement and reconstruction materials, the Gaza flotilla aimed to both highlight the suffocating siege but also confront the myth that the Strip was an independent entity after Israel’s 2005 withdrawal of troops and settlers.
The action has already succeeded in its aim of drawing attention to the military blockade of Gaza. The Strip has remained under siege by Israel and Egypt for over three years since Hamas, pre-empting a Fatah-US backed coup, violently took over the Gaza Strip in 2007. Since the Israeli onslaught against the Strip in late 2008 and early 2009, the territory has remained in limbo, unable to rebuild due to Israel and Egypt’s refusal to allow even adequate rebuilding materials to cross their borders.
The Hamas-controlled tunnels from Egypt are now a lifeline to the 1.5 million residents living inside the world’s biggest open-air prison. I saw myself the devastating effects of the siege on people’s lives during a visit there last year.
Over the last years a number of boats have attempted to break the blockade and a handful have been successful. This Gaza flotilla was the largest attempt made so far and was led primarily by Turkish human rights organisations and peace activists. The Free Gaza movement also contributed a few boats to the mission.
After some false starts and mechanical trouble with the ships (some blamed Israel for sabotaging them) the flotilla set sail on its journey toward the Gaza Strip. Sydney Morning Herald journalist Paul McGeough was on one of the boats as they left Greece. He is now missing, likely detained by the Israelis, as the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs attempts to confirm his whereabouts.
While still in international waters, the Israeli navy demanded the boats turn back but they refused. Then, without warning, commandos descended from helicopters and stormed the Mavi Marmara causing chaos. The Israeli narrative says that the men faced a barrage of axes, knives and gunfire from the peace protesters.
I agree with the editorial in the Electronic Intifada that states, “it is unclear how anyone could credibly adopt an Israeli narrative of ‘self-defence’ when Israel had carried out an unprovoked armed assault on civilian ships in international waters. Surely any right of self-defence would belong to the passengers on the ship.”
Indeed, the barrage of information and images, pumped across the Israeli media, shows soldiers being blocked and will, according to some Israeli bloggers, lead many in the country to back their troops. The IDF has issued countless statements that allegedly prove a collection of weapons was “prepared” to attack any Israeli intervention and that insist the soldiers feared being “lynched” by the protestors. It is a position vehemently rejected by the flotilla organisers.
Meanwhile here, ABC TV’s Lateline program last night absurdly gave the Israeli Government a lengthy opportunity to defend its position. At a time of claim and counter-claim, this sort of choice by the network highlights the depth of Western complicity in the Zionist project that has itself permitted the high seas attack.
Despite the rather mild call from Australia’s Foreign Minister Stephen Smith this morning for Israel’s blockade to end, the fact is that the Gaza siege has been allowed to continue for years.
Hamas has been demonised as a Hitler-in-the-making, yet as its leader, Khaled Meshal, told the The Guardian this week, it is willing to negotiate with Washington. Indeed, it appears that the Obama administration may have already sent a number of envoys to open dialogue with the group (but hasn’t found the guts to admit it).
Now Israel’s staunchest backers are questioning its actions — witness The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg writing yesterday that he is worried for the future of Israel: “a worry I feel in a deeper way than I have ever felt before”, and critics such as Norman Finkelstein are calling Israel a “lunatic state”. Even Israel recognises this is a crisis. The question is what happens next.
Debate should not focus solely on Israel’s killings on the high seas (though serious questions must be asked why commandos, hardly expert in peaceful crowd dispersion, are sent to disarm a ship full of humanitarian workers). Will the Zionist lobby simply mouth Israeli Government spin? Will Australia’s Jewish community leaders actually care about the facts or stick to the script, trying once more to defend the indefensible?
One Jewish writer, Moshe Yaroni, has already written a powerful piece that calls the event a “massacre” and pleads for Israel to stop “committing to this suicidal and murderous course it is on”.
While the West Bank occupation deepens every day and the rights of Israeli Arabs inside Israel decrease, “loyalty oath” legislation is making its way through the Knesset. As more in the Diaspora recognise the self-destructive nature of the Jewish state and its proud history of chauvinism, Israel has a clear choice: reform or face growing international isolation.
Unfortunately, yesterday’s actions near Gaza show the country seems, very deliberately, to have already chosen.