The New York Times front-paged a story on the conflicting video images of the assault on the Gaza flotilla, concluding that neither side’s case was proven because the videos lacked the necessary context. What came just before or just after?
Normally, neutrality in the face of contradictory and incomplete information is an admirable trait. But consider the circumstances. One side, the Israeli attackers, surely have video of the entire encounter, but have shown only selected snippets, carefully avoiding the period immediately before the troops landed on board the Mavi Marmara. The other side, those trying to break the blockade, had their cellphones and cameras confiscated ("captured" is how the IDF put it), one of their websites hacked, and limited coverage of events. Despite this asymmetry that ought to make us extremely skeptical of the Israeli version, the clips do seem to show that the Israeli forces fired before they landed — and you can bet the IDF won’t be releasing their complete video for analysis. And as more and more passenger testimony becomes available, and as autopsy results show the victims shot between the eyes at point blank range, the Israeli version is more and more dubious.
But the Times is right that the competing videos don’t provide context — but the context is not just what happened in the few minutes before or after, or even including the probable Israeli attempts to sabotage the ships before they left port. Rather, what’s relevant is the larger political context of the nature of the blockade and of Israel’s ongoing occupation and oppression of the Palestinian people.
Israeli apologists like to claim that no one is starving because of the blockade. This is true of most prisons, but in any event the suffering caused by the blockade is horrendous. There is widespread malnutrition. The agricultural sector is suffocating under the blockade. The number of refugees living in abject poverty in Gaza has tripled since the blockade began. More than 60 per cent of households are currently "food insecure." For many Gazans, electricity is cut 8-12 hours daily, compared to 6-8 hours prior to January 2010. As the UN office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs put it,
"At the heart of the crisis is the degradation in the living conditions of the population, caused by the erosion of livelihoods and the gradual decline in the state of infrastructure, and the quality of vital services in the areas of health, water and sanitation, and education."
Israel coyly whines that if only the activists had delivered their humanitarian supplies to the Israeli port of Ashdod, Israeli would have been happy to pass on all the acceptable items to Gaza. But that of course is precisely the problem: for three years Israeli authorities had determined that basic humanitarian supplies were unacceptable. So, for example, on June 1, the World Health Organization renewed its call "to allow for the unimpeded access into the Gaza Strip of life-saving medical supplies, including equipment and medicines, as well as more effective movement of people in and out of the territory for medical training and the repair of devices needed to deliver appropriate healthcare." The necessary equipment was available — but blocked by Israeli officials from being permitted to enter Gaza.
But what else could Israel do besides the blockade in order to protect its security, asks New York public radio host Brian Lehrer? After all, he says, Hamas is launching rockets from Gaza into Israel.
This view of the situation, however, is the same erroneous view put forward by the Israeli government and its apologists during Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s massive assault on Gaza in December 2008-January 2009.
At that time, Israel and company argued that the murderous attack was necessary because of the rockets that were being fired from Gaza. What they neglected to mention, however, was that starting in mid-June 2008 there had been a truce — a lull — during which time there were zero rockets fired by Hamas and close to zero fired by other Palestinian groups. In the words of an Israeli think-tank connected to the Israeli security establishment, "… Hamas was careful to maintain the ceasefire and its operatives were not involved in rocket attacks. At the same time, the movement tried to enforce the terms of the arrangement on the other terrorist organizations and to prevent them from violating it." The truce held until November 4, 2008 when Israel, not Hamas, broke it. Moreover, the Gazans understood the truce to include a lifting of the suffocating Israeli blockade. Israel did loosen the blockade somewhat at the beginning of the lull, but by October deliveries into Gaza were below the inadequate pre-lull level of March 2008. (In March, humanitarian aid groups had warned of a "humanitarian implosion.") And exports from Gaza — upon which the economy depended — were almost totally prohibited.
The blockade — enforced by Israel and Egypt — was widely denounced by human rights groups (e.g., Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the Israeli organizations Gisha and B‘Tselem) UN officials (e.g. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, General Assembly President Miguel D‘Escoto, the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes, the Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, Robert Serry, Special Rapporteurs John Dugard and Richard Falk), and in two presidential statements of the European Union as collective punishment — because its purpose was to change Hamas’s behavior by punishing the one and a half million civilians of Gaza, the majority of them children. Israeli officials openly boasted that this was their intent, and the fact that exports are prohibited and such things as coriander and notebooks are banned from importation proves that restricting the flow of weapons was not the motivation for the blockade.
After Israel broke the truce on November 4, rocket fire from Gaza and Israeli military strikes were frequent, and the blockade was tightened even further. When the lull was formally due to expire in mid-December, Hamas made its position clear; as Khalid Meshal put it, "When this broken truce neared its end, we expressed our readiness for a new comprehensive truce in return for lifting the blockade." But Israel wasn’t interested and instead launched Operation Cast Lead, killing hundreds of innocent civilians and destroying much of what was left of Gaza’s economic infrastructure. International, Israeli, and Palestinian human rights groups as well as the Goldstone Report documented that the economic destruction was intentional. "’Hamas’s civilian infrastructure is a very, very sensitive target," pointed out Matti Steinberg, a former top adviser to Israel’s domestic security service. "If you want to put pressure on them, this is how."
Israel’s assault on Gaza was wildly disproportionate, but as the UN’s Special Rapporteur Richard Falk persuasively argued, disproportionality is a secondary consideration. More significant is the fact that the Israeli use of force was not "legally justified at all" given the "circumstances and diplomatic alternatives available."
On January 8, 2009, the UN Security Council adopted — with 14 affirmative votes and only the United States abstaining — Resolution 1860 calling for an immediate ceasefire, but also for "the unimpeded provision and distribution throughout Gaza of humanitarian assistance, including of food, fuel and medical treatment."
Israel and Egypt, however, maintained the blockade, which was now doubly illegal: first because it constituted collective punishment and second because it violated Resolution 1860.
Following the ceasefire, Hamas again expressed its willingness to establish a truce so long as the blockade was lifted. Similar offers were repeated frequently, for example, in September 2009, but Israel wasn’t interested. And so the blockade continued, with its devastating human consequences.
So the simplest answer to Brian Lehrer’s question of what Israel could do to maintain its security in place of a blockade is that it is precisely the blockade that causes the threats to Israeli security. Without the blockade, there would be no obstacle to negotiating a long-term ceasefire, which would mean the end to rocket fire and other threats to Israel’s legitimate security interests.
But beyond a ceasefire, Israel could also negotiate a broader settlement to the Israel-Palestine conflict. There are two obstacles to such a settlement. One of these is not Hamas, for it has long indicated — most recently on May 30 — its willingness to accept a settlement along the lines of the Arab Peace Initiative. Hamas says it would not itself recognize Israel, but it also says recognition is not something that political parties do in any case; it’s what states do. Israel-apologists like to quote from some of the intransigence and repulsive anti-Semitism from Hamas’s 1988 Charter, but all serious observers — such as studies written for U.S. Institute of Peace, the Army War College, or the International Crisis Group — have documented that the organization has moved far from its 1988 positions.
So, no, the obstacle to a settlement is not Hamas. The first obstacle is Israel, which seems committed to denying the Palestinians an opportunity for a dignified independent existence. Of course, this can be seen most clearly in the statements of rightwing leaders like Prime Minister Netanyahu and his openly racist foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman. But the coalition government ruling Israel today includes the Labor Party, with Ehud Barak holding the Defense portfolio. And the Labor party veteran who serves as President, Shimon Peres, too takes positions — like insisting on Israel‘s right to build new settlements anywhere in Jerusalem — that are guaranteed to thwart any chance of peace.
The second obstacle to peace is the United States. Washington has for many years given Israel the material support to enable its atrocities — Israel is the number one recipient of US aid in the world; number two is the Egyptian dictatorship, the other country responsible for the Gaza blockade. But more important than economic and military aid is that the United States has provided the diplomatic cover for Israel’s oppression of Palestinians. The Bush administration did this with gusto, but for all his talk of change, Obama has done the same. (Indeed, if you compare their UN General Assembly voting records, Obama‘s administration has been if anything a little worse than Bush on Israel-Palestine.) By blocking action on the Goldstone report, Obama essentially gave Israel permission to commit war crimes. By preventing anything but the mildest criticism of Israel in the Security Council in response to Israel’s criminal assault on the Gaza flotilla, Obama has assured that atrocities will continue. By itself publicly offering only regret but not condemnation for the assault, the U.S. government shares Israel’s responsibility. And by opposing an international inquiry into the attack on the aid flotilla — as opposed to letting the perpetrator investigate itself — Obama has granted impunity for murder.
The blockade must be lifted immediately and the occupation ended. And that will require ending the U.S. support that makes these horrors possible.
Stephen R. Shalom teaches political science at William Paterson University in NJ. He is a member of the IOA Advisory Board.