The Gaza Freedom Flotilla Attack: Arrogance of Power or Paranoia of Apartheid State on the Brink?

ALI MUSTAFA | September 7th 2010

International outrage

Shock and outrage continues to grow worldwide over Israel’s deadly attack on a humanitarian aid convoy bound for Gaza a week ago. Over 600 civilian activists from at least 40 different countries took part in the convoy, carrying 10,000 tons of vital aid, including food, medicine and medical equipment, reconstruction materials, as well as various other basic goods that are arbitrarily banned entry into Gaza by Israel. Israeli naval commandos raided all six ships of the convoy 70 nautical miles offshore in international waters, killing 9 people (8 of which were Turkish citizens) and seriously wounding others. Following the attack, hundreds of the activists were detained but have since been released and deported back home, along with the injured and the bodies of those killed.

International condemnation in response the attack has been resolute and widespread. Norway, Brazil, and Spain were only a few of the many countries whose leaders fiercely censured Israel for its actions and openly called for an international investigation into the attack. Several other countries have recalled their ambassadors and suspended all diplomatic relations with Israel, including Nicaragua, South Africa, and of course Turkey – only further adding to the list of countries to either limit or entirely cut ties with Israel since its brutal military assault on Gaza in 2008/2009.

Until the attack, Turkey was by far Israel’s closest and most strategically important ally in the region. Having developed deep political, economic, and military ties in recent years, the diplomatic fallout between the two countries is not only grave but may prove beyond repair. Aside from immediately recalling the country’s ambassador to Israel, Turkey’s Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogen unequivocally branded the attack a ‘bloody massacre’ and a ‘historic mistake.’ As a predominantly Muslim country and a major regional power in its own right, Turkey’s rift with Israel represents a significant shift in the overall balance of forces in the region.

While much of the world fully repudiated Israel’s actions, the major world powers have once again remained shamefully silent. It is no coincidence at all that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in Canada meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper at the time of the attack (a short week or so after Ontario’s Premier Dalton Mcguinty was in Israel on a trade mission of his own, it might be added). In front of the whole world Harper stood side by side with Netanyahu and said nothing of the attack except to express ‘deep regret’ for the lives lost, eager to confirm, it would seem, Canada’s status as quite literally Israel’s staunchest ally in the world today.

As for the US, those expecting a paradigm shift in US foreign policy in the Middle East will also be sorely disappointed. Mounting speculation in the mainstream media of strained relations between the US and Israel as a result of the attack has been largely overstated and should be met with open skepticism. Considering the muted official response from the White House, we can expect to see unconditional US support for Israel not only continue to thrive but very likely reach new heights of hypocrisy.

Whether the latest events in the region will result in the international isolation of Israel and serve as a catalyst to the growing ‘Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions’ (BDS) movement remains to be seen; what is clear, however, is that Israel will never be viewed internationally the same way again and is increasingly becoming a liability to its powerful allies and benefactors in the West. Because the major world powers cannot be expected to act and hold Israel to account for its actions, it should be the responsibility of the international community – people of conscience all over the world – to now fill the void.

Justifying the unjustifiable 

Immediately following the attack, Netanyahu and his government were quick to defend Israel’s actions, alleging hypocrisy in the media coverage, terrorist links of the activists killed, and even self-defense of the Israeli soldiers involved in the raid who were allegedly attacked with everything from metal pipes and bats to knives and guns. Israel continues to flatly reject UN calls for an international investigation into the attack (buttressed of course by US and Canadian support), claiming the military is already conducting its own internal investigation. The idea that an investigation into a crime would be allowed to be conducted by the criminals themselves is so absurd as to warrant no further comment. Nor would it be the first time Israel has refused to cooperate with an international probe, the military assault on Gaza being the most obvious.

The official claim that the activists on the ship initiated the attack and that the Israeli commandos were merely defending themselves defies common logic – as international legal expert Richard Falk argues, if anyone on the ship had the right of self-defense it was the activists on board. In addition, for the activists on the ship to engage, or even prepare to engage, Israel in any other way but self-defense would not only be an act of sheer stupidity but would fatally undermine the purpose of the mission and it own aims. The common refrain by the Israeli government and its apologists that Israel’s actions are motivated by ‘security concerns’ and the ‘threat of terrorism’ simply do not ring true against an aid convoy consisting of civilian activists. Just imagine for a moment what the response would be were these the justifications of, for example, Iran. It is unthinkable, in fact; the world would be preparing for war right now.

Why didn’t the flotilla unload the cargo in either Israel or Egypt, both of which offered to deliver the aid to Gaza? Simple: the purpose of the flotilla was to break the siege, not further legitimize it by operating within its prescribed framework and the dictates of the powers enforcing it. Besides, it is not altogether unlikely that Israel’s offer to receive and deliver the aid was one that they had no intention to fulfill, knowing very well that the activists could never agree to it. In addition, Turkey’s PM himself verified that all vessels in the convoy were duly inspected for any weapons in advance.

As for the claims that the purpose of the blockade is to punish Hamas and prevent it from re-stocking arms, the real siege on Gaza existed long before Hamas came to power in 2006 (and is in large part the impetus that propelled them to power over the corrupt PA in the first place). If the only obstacle to peace right now and the lifting of the siege is Hamas rule, then why is it that Israel continues to illegally construct the wall, expropriate further land, and expand new settlements in the West Bank – where Hamas is not even in power? The siege on Gaza has little to do with Hamas and is merely a reflection of Israeli state policy overall.

Paranoia of apartheid 

But is it even possible for a ‘normal’ state to behave this way? Was this attack a symptom of the arrogance of power, or rather the paranoia of a state in the last throes of a losing legitimacy crisis? Are we witnessing merely a state in crisis, or an apartheid state rapidly unraveling in its own internal contradictions?

Israel, it is clear, suffers from an acute state of cognitive dissonance – the obvious and irreconcilable tension between the idea of a ‘Jewish state’, and the reality that it can only find fulfillment via the expulsion, dispossession, and physical separation (or elimination) of another people. Rather than change its behaviour and resolve the dilemma, Israel attempts to justify its actions to the world (and to itself) by charging its critics with anti-Semitism or terrorist links, or when all else fails, as all powers do, it responds to this untenable position with brute, naked force. What cannot be achieved by consent or other conventional means is carried out by force as a least preferred, but always ready resort.

Israel cannot be both a ‘democracy’ and a settler-colonial state built on Jewish exclusivity and military power any more than it can claim to want peace with the Palestinians, yet openly reject all basic preconditions for a viable and just resolution. The attack must be understood as a telling expression of the Israeli psyche and sense of paranoia in its most bare (and brutal) form. What Israel fundamentally fails to realize is that so long as colonization and occupation remain the core pillars upon which it exists, it will never truly be safe, accepted by the world, and free itself from this paranoia.

When the whole world is watching, brute force no longer works as a way of punishing a people into submission, much less winning over public opinion. The fact that Israel attacked an international humanitarian aid convoy on the high seas reveals just how desperate it is, and insane it has become, to maintain the apartheid status quo. The attack is alarming not so much for the scope of violence as the sheer recklessness of it and what was at stake.

An international crime

This attack may well be the act that finally opens the eyes of the international community (and some allied states as well) to the reality of Israel. During last week’s attack, the true face of Israel was exposed for the whole world to see – one that unfortunately Palestinians know all too well. So long as it was Palestinians getting butchered it was allowable, but to attack an aid convoy in international waters filled with civilians on a humanitarian mission – including parliamentarians, journalists, and activists – all of the familiar rhetoric/propaganda that surrounds the conflict is defused and Israel’s fragility is laid bare unlike ever before.

No longer is the Israel/Palestine conflict happening somewhere ‘over there’ between ‘them’; it has taken on an entirely new international dimension and level of awareness. When the furor over this tragedy recedes from the news headlines, will Palestinians once again be forgotten or portrayed as hapless terrorists refusing to accept their given fate, or will the international community now finally begin to pay attention?

The analogy is often made between Israel and Apartheid South Africa, and the comparison is no doubt an unavoidable one with countless parallels (curfews, pass laws, Bantustans etc.), but Israel’s ‘Sharpeville’ or ‘Soweto’ this most certainly is not. During the Sharpeville Massacre of March 21, 1960, for example, South African police mercilessly and indiscriminately gunned down unarmed Black civilians who organized a protest against the Apartheid regime, killing at least 69 people. The attack was a defining moment in the internal anti-Apartheid struggle, advancing international awareness about the plight of Black South Africans and serving as a rallying point to isolate the Apartheid regime. Such an analogy in this case fails to capture the true magnitude of Israel’s actions a week ago. Israel’s recent attack is even more flagrant than anything comparable before it, since it was carried out against internationals in international waters – not Palestinians who are seen as expendable and easily absorbed into the prevailing colonial discourse of ‘security concerns’, ‘terrorist threats’, or ‘collateral damage.’

Remembering Gaza

Of course, this latest crime must be seen in the wider context of an even greater, ongoing crime: the brutal and illegal siege on Gaza, nowofficially in its third year. In fact, Gaza is one of the most pronounced expressions of Israel’s apartheid reality, many Gazans being ‘internal refugees’ that were displaced during the ‘Nakba’ of 1948 upon which the state of Israel was founded. According to a recent UN report, the siege on Gaza has completely crippled the local economy, leaving 75% of residents hungry and more than 40% unemployed. Thousands of refugees whose houses were destroyed in the 2008/2009 invasion have been unable to rebuild their lives, and health and education levels have collapsed. UN statistics show that around 70% of Gazans live on less than $1 a day and a further 80% are dependent on UN humanitarian aid to survive. Security Council Resolution 1860, passed during the military assault on Gaza in 2009, calls for ending the blockade and allowing humanitarian assistance to reach Gaza without restriction. The flotilla was a response to this reality and a bold statement of both the power of international solidarity and the resilience of the people of Gaza.

Our only course of action…

Israel’s latest transgression of international and humanitarian law is a crime not only against the people of Gaza but the international community at large. In light of the severity of Israel’s actions a week ago and the widespread international condemnation that has followed, it is evident that the proverbial crack in the facade of Israel as a ‘normal’ state is growing; the only forces currently keeping the artifice together are complicit allies like Canada and the US, and the relative inaction of us all. But if there was ever a time to give Israel the ‘South African treatment’ it is now. Just like Apartheid South Africa before it, Israel must be met with a sustained, worldwide campaign of BDS until it complies fully with international law. As the great 19th century writer Victor Hugo reminds us, “All the forces of the world are not so powerful as an idea whose time has come.” It is up to us, the international community, to decide whether or not that time is now upon us.