Hijacking boats in international waters and killing passengers is, of course, a serious crime.
But the crime is nothing new. For decades, Israel has been hijacking boats between Cyprus and Lebanon and killing or kidnapping passengers, sometimes holding them hostage in Israeli prisons.
Israel assumes that it can commit such crimes with impunity because the United States tolerates them and Europe generally follows the U.S.’s lead.
As the editors of The Guardian rightly observed on June 1, “If an armed group of Somali pirates had yesterday boarded six vessels on the high seas, killing at least 10 passengers and injuring many more, a NATO task force would today be heading for the Somali coast.” In this case, the NATO treaty obligates its members to come to the aid of a fellow NATO country—Turkey—attacked on the high seas.
Israel’s pretext for the attack was that the Freedom Flotilla was bringing materials that Hamas could use for bunkers to fire rockets into Israel.
The pretext isn’t credible. Israel can easily end the threat of rockets by peaceful means.
The background is important. Hamas was designated a major terrorist threat when it won a free election in January 2006. The U.S. and Israel sharply escalated their punishment of Palestinians, now for the crime of voting the wrong way.
The siege of Gaza, including a naval blockade, was a result. The siege intensified sharply in June 2007 after a civil war left Hamas in control of the territory.
What is commonly described as a Hamas military coup was in fact incited by the U.S. and Israel, in a crude attempt to overturn the elections that had brought Hamas to power.
That has been public knowledge at least since April 2008, when David Rose reported in Vanity Fair that George W. Bush, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and her deputy, Elliott Abrams, “backed an armed force under Fatah strongman Muhammad Dahlan, touching off a bloody civil war in Gaza and leaving Hamas stronger than ever.”
Hamas terror included launching rockets into nearby Israeli towns—criminal, without a doubt, though only a minute fraction of routine U.S.-Israeli crimes in Gaza.
In June 2008, Israel and Hamas reached a cease-fire agreement. The Israeli government formally acknowledges that until Israel broke the agreement on Nov. 4 of that year, invading Gaza and killing half a dozen Hamas activists, Hamas did not fire a single rocket.
Hamas offered to renew the cease-fire. The Israeli cabinet considered the offer and rejected it, preferring to launch its murderous invasion of Gaza on Dec.27.
Like other states, Israel has the right of self-defense. But did Israel have the right to use force in Gaza in the name of self-defense? International law, including the U.N. Charter, is unambiguous: A nation has such a right only if it has exhausted peaceful means. In this case such means were not even tried, although—or perhaps because—there was every reason to suppose that they would succeed.
Thus the invasion was sheer criminal aggression, and the same is true of Israel’s resorting to force against the flotilla.
The siege is savage, designed to keep the caged animals barely alive so as to fend off international protest, but hardly more than that. It is the latest stage of longstanding Israeli plans, backed by the U.S., to separate Gaza from the West Bank.
The Israeli journalist Amira Hass, a leading specialist on Gaza, outlines the history of the process of separation: “The restrictions on Palestinian movement that Israel introduced in January 1991 reversed a process that had been initiated in June 1967.
“Back then, and for the first time since 1948, a large portion of the Palestinian people again lived in the open territory of a single country — to be sure, one that was occupied, but was nevertheless whole. …”
Hass concludes: “The total separation of the Gaza Strip from the West Bank is one of the greatest achievements of Israeli politics, whose overarching objective is to prevent a solution based on international decisions and understandings and instead dictate an arrangement based on Israel’s military superiority.”
The Freedom Flotilla defied that policy and so it must be crushed.
A framework for settling the Arab-Israeli conflict has existed since 1976, when the regional Arab States introduced a Security Council resolution calling for a two-state settlement on the international border, including all the security guarantees of U.N. Resolution 242, adopted after the June War in 1967.
The essential principles are supported by virtually the entire world, including the Arab League, the Organization of Islamic States (including Iran) and relevant non-state actors, including Hamas.
But the U.S. and Israel have led the rejection of such a settlement for three decades, with one crucial and highly informative exception. In President Bill Clinton’s last month in office, January 2001, he initiated Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in Taba, Egypt, that almost reached an agreement, participants announced, before Israel terminated the negotiations.
Today, the cruel legacy of a failed peace lives on.
International law cannot be enforced against powerful states, except by their own citizens. That is always a difficult task, particularly when articulate opinion declares crime to be legitimate, either explicitly or by tacit adoption of a criminal framework—which is more insidious, because it renders the crimes invisible.