On Monday Israeli commandos boarded one of the civilian passenger ships that was part of the “freedom flotilla” sailing to break Israel’s siege on Gaza and opened fire, killing at least nine and injuring many others. My first reaction was, as respected New York Times columnist Nick Kristof tweeted, that “Israel wldn’t be that stupid.”
The movement that put together this blockade-busting attempt sought to draw attention to the heinous blockade of Gaza that Israel has imposed for four years.
Bloodshed at the hands of the Israeli military could only mean that the story of the flotilla, which had already garnered some media attention, would become a leading news item. As they say in the news industry: If it bleeds, it leads.
Prior to the latest Israeli attack, Israel was already reeling from devastating blows to its international reputation. The three-week war on Gaza during 2008-09, which left some 1,400 dead, mostly civilians, and a number of others maimed, is just one of many recent examples.
To avoid further international disdain, Israel needed to find a peaceful end to the standoff with the flotilla to avoid embarrassment.
This was not merely a confrontation of boats on the high seas, but a public relations battle. On one side, activists sought to expose Israel’s collective punishment of Gaza’s civilian population. The Israeli side sought to keep the reality of its blockade hidden.
Yet Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman tipped Israel’s hand a few days before the assault at sea when he said Israel would be prepared to stop the flotilla “at any cost.” We know now what he had in mind.
Today the death toll remains sketchy, and Israeli officials continue to insist that they support the actions of Israeli soldiers and gave fair warning to the boat filled with activists on board. Ridiculously, Israel says that these activists had connections to Al Qaeda.
The fact is that the activists hailed from around the world, representing many faiths and included a Nobel Peace laureate, parliamentarians, and former US diplomats. Now, many of them are needlessly dead. It’s clear to me that this was no accident but an intentional massacre on the high seas to send a message to nonviolent activists and the international community.
The message from Israel was simple: We don’t care about your laws, rights, civilians, or what you think of us. We care only about maintaining our occupation regime through the use of force – and there is nothing you can do to stop us.
And Israel is the occupier of Gaza. It immediately closed off exit by air and sea (and only recently reopened its border with Gaza on the Strip amid international criticism) and pressures Egypt to keep any land exit via the Sinai Peninsula closed. The international community still recognizes it as the occupier of Gaza.
Israel’s message has been repeated year after year through the occupation, the war on Gaza, the consistent colonization of Palestinian territory, and so on.
The proverbial ball is now in the international community’s court. The siege on Gaza must end now and the Israeli regime must face the consequences of violating international law. Another independent inquiry is absolutely necessary to spell out in detail what transpired in the Mediterranean.
The problem is that Israel rejects even the finest judge’s inquiries, as was the case with Judge Richard Goldstone following the Gaza assault.
In modern times, it seems that oppression cannot end until the oppressor is exposed to the world as having no regard for humanity. Only then does enough international or domestic pressure emerge to make the regime change its ways.
In India, this took the Amritsar massacre in 1919 by British Imperialist troops; in South Africa it took the Sharpeville massacre in 1960; in the United States it took the lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till in 1955. In each case, the perpetrators tried to portray the victims as terrorists or criminals, but people of conscience would not have it.
With each drop of civilian blood, the impunity grows.
The emerging question is whether this will be Palestine’s moment. It falls on the shoulders of the international community to seize this opportunity. Many such opportunities have passed, like the massacres at Qana in 1996, Sabra and Shatila in the 1980s, Hebron in 1994, Qana again in 2006, Gaza in 2008, and the list goes on.
The activists who set sail for Gaza did their part and now people of conscience around the world and their governments must to do their part. We can choose whether the dead activists will be the last of the civilians killed by the Israeli regime or if they will simply join the list of countless others who died trying to expose the crimes of occupation and siege.
Anything less than an international outcry leading to the end of the siege on Gaza would mean the international community has failed civil society, and the nonviolent activists will have died in vain.