Israel’s Assault on the Gaza Flotilla

          Why does Israel have virtually no moral standing and legitimacy in the eyes of most of the world’s citizens–except in the United States, where the Obama administration, the congress, the Israel lobby, and the media defend its policies and promulgate its lies?  What psychological attributes do the leaders of these two nuclear powers share that put them so out of sync with all the rest? A quick glance at Israel’s behavior in 2009 and 2010 suggests some answers.

          On Dec. 27, 2008, during the final days of the Bush administration, television screens and the internet allowed a vast global audience to bear witness as Israel, enabled by U.S. military aid and diplomatic protection, launched a war of aggression on the defenseless urban-dwelling Palestinian refugees of Gaza in order to destroy their morale and weaken their democratically-elected Hamas civil government. Over the next three weeks (ending around Jan. 18, 2009) the Israel Defense Forces killed over 1,400 Palestinian men, women, and children, including babies as young as five months, while suffering 10 military and 3 civilian deaths. The ensuing physical and environmental destruction was enormous and unjustifiable in any way. When the war wound down without ever ending, Israel’s policy-makers continued their illegal collective punishment of some 1.5 million impoverished Palestinians, more than half under age 15, living in the 26-mile-long, 7-mile deep Strip. They also increased their illegal building of settlements in the West Bank and demolition of Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem. Again and again Israel has turned to military force, terror, and the torture of children to break the Palestinian will and to thwart a peaceful resolution that might have led to an independent, viable Palestinian state.[1]

          Consequently, for the remainder of 2009 the international environment remained unsupportive of Israel and its continued theft of Palestinian land and resources. The perception gap between the Israeli way of seeing themselves, as victims of anti-Semitism, and international perceptions of the aggressive Zionist state steadily widened. In September, South African Justice Richard Goldstone issued his UN fact-finding report documenting, in 574 pages, Israel’s war crimes and crimes against humanity in Gaza and the West Bank, and its "continuing policy aimed at punishing the Gaza population." Some Israeli human rights groups cooperated fully with the UN mission. But the Israeli government refused to cooperate and reacted tribalistically, as did most ordinary citizens, denying that Israel had committed any crimes and claiming instead that the IDF was "the most moral army in the world." Then they set out to undermine the legitimacy of the Goldstone Report by branding it "simply a type of anti-Semitism."[2] 

          None of this slowed the nonviolent Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which continued to gather worldwide support. In Europe, human rights activists and lawyers drew up lists of IDF soldiers linked to war crimes while citizens marched on Israeli embassies, demanding action from their governments to stop further Israeli acts of military aggression.[3] Regimes that had previously favored Israel, such as Jordan and Turkey, felt the strain of maintaining official ties with the Zionist tribal state. Although the Egyptian dictatorship actively sided with Israel and only two countries outside the Middle East–Venezuela and Bolivia–severed diplomatic relations with Israel, the international environment had clearly turned against it.

          The Israeli government, meanwhile, continued its illegal blockade of Gaza’s coast, its closure of crossing points for merchandise and persons arriving from Israel, and its ban on nearly all exports from Gaza. Boats attempting to break the blockade, like the "Spirit of Humanity" in summer 2009, were boarded, their passengers kidnapped, and brought against their will to Israel. One brazen act of Israeli criminality followed another. The Israeli government sent an eleven-member Mossad death squad to Dubai using forged and stolen European and Australian passports. There, on Jan. 19, 2010, they assassinated the Palestinian Hamas leader, Mahmoud al Mabhouh, while video cameras in the hotel where the murderers had gathered caught some of them in the act of entering the victim’s hotel room. Since the targeting of individuals in foreign countries for assassination is official U.S. as well as Israeli policy, this incident might have been quickly forgotten were it not for the fact that the Israelis used six stolen British passports to commit their crime, thereby trampling on British sovereignty. This action raised a red flag: Israel, like the U.S., posed a potential threat to all nations that harbored its adversaries because it did not scruple to violate the sovereignty of any nation.[4]

          Meanwhile, mistrust between the Obama administration and the Likud government of right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu had allegedly been growing ever since Netanyahu, backed by American Jewish leaders, refused to freeze Jewish settlement growth. In March it reached the point where even the mainstream U.S. media was reporting "tension" between Israel and the Obama administration. Adm. Mike Mullen, Gen. David Petraeus, and Vice President Joe Biden repeatedly warned Israel’s leaders of the danger to Americans from their intransigence, only to be immediately counter-attacked by the "Israel lobby" and assorted Congressional and media supporters of Israel’s policies.

          In fact, the "tensions" were greatly exaggerated. Whatever his personal feelings for Netanyahu, President Barack Obama continued to give Netanyahu a free hand to trample on the human rights of the Palestinian people, thereby making a mockery of his earlier initiative for Middle East peace.[5] Emboldened by Obama’s toleration of Israeli actions, from its continued occupation and settlement building to its collective punishment of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, the Likud government set out to break the back of the Free Gaza Movement, which was drawing attention to its cruel blockade. It ordered the Israeli navy and IDF commandos to attack a multinational humanitarian aid flotilla en route toward the Gaza coast, carrying from 600 to 700 unarmed civilian peace activists from 32 countries together with hundreds of tons of essential goods needed by the malnourished, anemic children and adults in the Strip but barred from delivery by Israel.

          On May 31, 2010, Israeli ships and naval commandos attacked and took control of the Gaza Freedom Flotilla while its six ships were in international waters, far from the territorial waters of Gaza, where the status of Hamas might have been legally relevant. The attackers, in helicopters and boats, fired first and indiscriminately at the unarmed, peaceful civilians on the lead ship Mavi Marmara. Masked, heavily armed Israeli commandos then stormed aboard all the ships of the flotilla and proceeded to beat and hood the passengers and confiscate all their possessions. The commandos did most of their killing after they had boarded, as autopsies revealed that five of the nine murder victims were shot multiple times at point-blank range with bullets to the head, back, and stomach.[6]

          Forty-three years earlier Israeli warplanes had killed 43 American sailors and wounded 172 others when they attacked the USS Liberty in international waters. This time, in the course of brazen acts of piracy on the high seas, the Israeli forces murdered at least nine unarmed civilian peace activists according to their own account, and may have disappeared several others in order to make the death count look smaller than it actually was. The commandos injured scores more who were taken to Israeli hospitals; and they handcuffed, hooded, severely roughed up, and pillaged the property of most of the others peace activists. Those on the receiving end of this assault knew they were experiencing just a small taste of the harsh treatment that Israeli military and police forces have routinely meted out to the majority of Palestinians ever since the start of their occupation in 1967. It was an outcome far worse than the PLO’s hijacking in 1985 of the Italian cruise ship the Achille Lauro, which killed one American.[7] On the Marmara eight of the dead were Turkish citizens; one was an American teenager living in Turkey. Some of the passengers on the Marmara, acting in self-defense, had courageously resisted the hijacking and Israel exploited this fact in a ludicrous effort to make the attackers look like the victims.

          Despite Israel’s attempt to mitigate and control the fallout from its aggression by a combination of blatant lies and doctored video film, and by claiming that the lifting of its blockade of Gaza would expose it to a strategic threat from Iran, angry reaction continued to build up around the world. Egypt, which had closed its border with Gaza during the attack, now opened it in the face of popular pressure. Turkey withdrew its ambassador and as a NATO member, asked for (but has so far not received) a NATO response to an attack on its citizens by a non-member state, which is hardly surprising given NATO’s subservience to the U.S. The U.S. also watered-down the Security Council’s efforts to condemn Israel so that it issued the weakest possible statement critical of Israel’s "acts," though it did not veto the UN criticism. The European Union called for an independent investigation of the Israeli hijacking while the Obama administration indicated that an Israeli self-investigation would suffice.

          As the global backlash to its raid unfolded, Israel’s leaders announced that they would press ahead with their policy of imprisoning Palestinians and inflicting collective punishment on them until they abandoned Hamas. Never having been held to account for their criminal actions in violation of international law, they are contemptuous of world opinion and confident that the United States government will support virtually anything they do. This is why Israeli commandos have now pirated and taken over the Irish-owned cargo-ship Rachel Corrie, the most recent of this year’s Gaza Freedom Movement vessels bringing humanitarian supplies for the Palestinians. But in the offing are other non-violent aid missions that will go on challenging the naval blockade.

          Israel’s repeated attacks on ships trying to get humanitarian aid into Gaza are the logical culmination of similar Israeli acts of state terrorism that had once targeted only Palestinians, but have now spread out to other nations and groups. What will be Israel’s next step? To attack Iran, which it accuses of wanting to turn Gaza into its "port"? Or to attack Turkish naval vessels that might accompany the next aid flotilla?

          If Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians are to be changed, it is essential for concerned citizens to pressure their local politicians, state senators, and congressional members to cut off U.S. aid to Israel. Boycott and sanction will not end the Israeli leadership’s veneration of force but may contribute to the lifting of its self-defeating siege and deter it from committing further war crimes.


1. Jonathan Cook. "Israeli doctors accused of flouting ethics," The National, June 29, 2009.

2. Jason Ditz, "Israeli Information Minister Slams All Reports on Gaza War as Anti-Semitic," Anti-War.com, Jan. 25, 2010.

3. Anshel Pfeffer, "Lawyers in EU draw up list of alleged IDF war criminals," Haaretz.com posted Oct. 28, 2009.

4. James Petras, "Mossads Murderous Reach: The Larger Political Issues," Feb. 22, 2010.

5. Noam Chomsky, "Turning Point?" ZNet, June 7, 2009.

6. Robert Booth, Harriet Sherwood, "Gaza flotilla attack: Autopsies reveal intensity of Israeli military force," Guardian UK, June 4, 2010.

7. Yvonne Ridley, "All At Sea," Information Clearing House, June 1, 2010.

Herbert Bix is the author of Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan, which won the Pulitzer Prize.


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