Defending the Indefensible

Israel’s actions today were unjustified. In launching an operation to take control of the flotilla of ships seeking to take aid and materials to , an operation in which at least 10 people died, the Israeli army has behaved in an entirely unjustified manner.

Some may think my language excessively moderate. Others have already used term like ‘massacre’ ‘war crimes’ ‘barbaric attack’ and variations on these. I avoid them because I believe that where Israel/Palestine is concerned it is best to lower, rather than raise the volume, to deal in facts rather than in slogans. If nothing else, easy slogans make it too easy for the defenders of Israel to ignore the critique. In this case, where the facts so clearly fail to justify the IDF’s behaviour, we need to make full use of them.

The flotilla was the latest attempt in the campaign, led by the Free Gaza Campaign, to break the blockade of Gaza. There have been several ships sent during Israel’s 3 year blockade (of which more below), and while most have been stopped, some have been allowed through (see here ) in moments when the Israeli government decided to be a little more tactical, or perhaps more importantly, before Benjamin Netanyahu became Prime Minister.  The Flotilla, the latest of such attempts, was bringing in necessary

“cement & building materials, medicine & medical equipment, wheelchairs, school & art supplies, playground & sports equipment”

Israeli spokespeople have claimed that in reality, there is no blockade, and had the activists simply brought their cargo to an Israeli port, Israel would then have brought them to Gaza. This is disingenuous. While Israel is allowing in what it terms humanitarian aid, the amount, and items allowed in are strictly controlled. It is estimated that the permitted deliveries to Gaza represent a mere 20% of imports before the blockade began in 2007, and that’s without considering the greater need for materials for reconstruction due to the war of January 2009. Just as importantly, Israel bans all materials for building for entering Gaza, including cement and glass. The reason is to make it impossible for Hamas operatives to build more weapons, but has the effect of stopping Gazans from rebuilding their houses, schools and public building, or from restoring any semblance of normal life.  It would be one thing for Israel to stop actual weapons from entering Gaza; quite another to ban materials that are necessary for maintaining society.

Within Israel’s stated policy of maintaining the blockade, they had the option of simply stopping it from reaching Gaza. They could have sent naval ships to surround the flotilla, enclosing it, and then, once it acquiesced, escorting it to the Israeli port of Ashdod. If, following such an action, the flotilla had fired upon the navy, showing that it was seriously armed, the IDF would have been then justified in taking control of the ships, being then, a more genuinely self-defensive act. Why did they not do this? Presumably, because it could have led to an embarrassing stalemate, and kept the issue in the news for the several days it might take to resolve. Ironic, given the terrible publicity they have now received.

Instead of this, Israel opted to send in soldiers to take control of the ship, in international waters, making the act entirely illegal. In taking such action, in the middle of the night, it was almost inevitable that there would be resistance, and with it, the risk of fatalities. Perhaps if the organisers had been absolute saints, carefully trained in non violent resistance, the deaths could have been avoided. Certainly the activists should have been more fastidious in ensuring they gave no provocation to the Israeli troops. There can be no justification in illegally invading a ship, an action which is extremely likely to lead to injury and death, in a situation where the ship is not attacking you, is not carrying arms and has no violent intent.

Despite this seemingly clear-cut case, the Israel PR machine is rapidly whirring into action. Here are some of the arguments they’ve been making:

The people on the ship are hardly human rights activists. They are anti Israel protesters, some of which are part of Islamist groups that support Hamas. If they were really only interested in delivering goods they’d have handed them over to the Israeli authorities.

I’ve dealt with the latter point above; the Israeli authorities would not have let in the majority of the cargo, only the elements which it deemed acceptable. As to the motivations of the activists, lets assume, charitably, that Israel is right, that most of them are Islamic fundamentalists who have a hate for the state of Israel. So what? That doesn’t change the fundamental analysis. They were (until the Israeli army hijacked the ship) behaving entirely peaceably. Their motivations, and their biographies, are irrelevant and a flagrant attempt to distract and confuse.

The activists attacked the soldiers with knives and metal bars. The soldiers only fired in self-defence.

This was not an armed ship. If the activists were planning for an armed encounter with the IDF they would have brought actual arms with which to fight.  By the Israeli’s admission, 5 of the 6 boats were captured without any resistance, demonstrating the non-violent intent of the vast majority of the protestors. A small minority clearly used improvised weapons to try to fend off the soldiers, who were armed with guns. Such resistance is understandable, if indeed misguided and unacceptable. It would have been a miracle  if nobody on board had tried to resist. Lets imagine that instead of using any knives or bars the protestors had simply tried to block in the soldiers, to try to prevent them from taking over the ship. That would have been textbook non-violent resistance, and the right thing to do. The soldiers would then presumably have tried to force their way through, in order to gain control of the ship. Given the fact that the soldiers were armed, and given the confusion that inevitably accompanies a 4am raid, it would have been absolutely miraculous if no-one had got hurt.  I’m not blaming the soldiers, they were clearly in an impossible position. The risk of injury, and possibly deaths, was intrinsic to the decision of the IDF to invade the ship, and not just an outcome of the behaviour of the protestors.

The protestors aim was not simply to deliver aid, but to ‘break the siege of Gaza’. They were clearly warned over the radio that they were forbidden from entering Gazan waters. They announced that they still intended to do so. Because of this illegal intent, the protestors clearly brought on the violence themselves.

This is the heart of the matter. The position of the Israeli authorities is that it is illegal (under Israeli law) to bring materials into Gaza outside Israel’s extremely limited import allowance mentioned above. Anyone trying to do that, and with it trying to remind public opinion of the blockade, is doing an illegal act and must suffer the consequences. If you believe that the blockade is justified and is necessary for Israel’s security perhaps this argument holds weight. However the blockade does not boost Israel’s security and is totally unjustified.

Following Ariel Sharon’s ‘disengagement’ from Gaza in 2005, Israel has never allowed Gaza’s borders to be fully open for imports and exports. There was, at least, an agreement from 2005-6. When Hamas won the Palestinian elections in 2006 restrictions were tightened, and a full-blown blockade was imposed from 2007 when Hamas took control of Gaza following battles with Fatah. The continuation of that blockade was a key reason for Hamas continuing to fire rockets into southern Israel, leading to the war of January 2009. Hamas has consistently indicated that it is prepared to negotiate with Israel (and has done so regarding Gilad Shalit, and the truce of 2008) but has always argued that lifting the blockade must be part of such negotiations. During the truce of 2008, rocket attacks decreased (never entirely ending) but the blockade was never lifted, only very slightly eased . After the war in Gaza, there were many international calls for a comprehensive ceasefire, one that would included the lifting of the economic siege. Israel, however, preferred a vague ‘end of hostilities’ in which it avoid appearing to concede anything to the enemy. Israel refuses to negotiate with Hamas on the grounds that it is a fundamentalist, anti semitic organisation that is out to destroy Israel, and therefore the government argues that there can be nothing to talk about. In reality Hamas is diverse, containing both theological extremists and nationalist pragmatists. After winning power in 2006, and particularly while negotiating for a Palestinian unity government, its spokespeople regularly expressed their willingness to compromise, and to implicitly accept a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, without actually recognising Israel. These positions are just the start, in actual negotiations they might well go further, particularly if they were actually allowed to govern. They can hardly be blamed for refusing to recognise Israel before any negotiations take place, Fatah tried that and look how far it got them. In their refusal to negotiate, Israel is singing the old tunes of the Bush administration, failing to realise that things have radically changed.  It’s a truism, but the only way to achieve peace is to actually negotiate with your enemies.

The blockade then, is part and parcel of a policy of refusing to negotiate and deal with the legitimate demands that Hamas might represent, instead imposing massive hardship on the people of Gaza in the hope that it might lead to the collapse of the Hamas government. In 3 years this has not happened and is not likely to. The attempt to break the will of the Gazan people, by denying them any kind of normality, as a collective punishment for supporting Hamas has not had the desired outcome. Rather it is a key reason for the moves towards the ‘de-legitimization’ of Israel, a process about which Israelis are rightly so concerned.  Today’s actions are an unjustifiable attempt to maintain an indefensible policy. We can only hope that these casualties lead to a radical change of direction.

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5 thoughts on “Defending the Indefensible

  1. This obviously highlights the controversy over the blockade of Gaza but I think it’s important to keep that issue slightly separate from the actual incident that happened this morning. The fact is that rightly or wrongly (the latter in my opinion) the Gaza Blockade exists and is part of Israeli law. People can, and should, protest against that law, but simply breaking it is not going to achieve very much and is a somewhat provocative act in itself. If you a break a law in any country, you can expect to incur consequences. In the same way I might not agree with, say, Dubai’s laws on public displays of affection or the French banning of the burka, I wouldn’t go to Dubai and kiss in public or take a trip to Paris wearing a burka (rather unlikely anyway!) and expect to go unpunished. (Obviously the banning of a religious garment is not the same as blocking humanitarian aid from entering a country – but the same logic applies.) So their open flaunting the laws of the democratically elected government of another country means it would be unrealistic for the protestors/activists not to expect some kind of reprisals. It is not unreasonable for Israel to respond to people open breaking its laws – it is the law itself that are unreasonable. that does not in any way justificy the agressiveness of Israel’s reaction. That immediately raises questions about the ‘Evil Israel brutally attacks totally innocent protestors’ angle that some people, including some in the media, seem to be adopting.

    BUT, none of that can possibly justify the agressiveness of Israel’s reaction. It was a typically disproportional response, one that yet again has led to the unnecessary loss of nine lives and created a diplomatic crisis that could so easily have been avoided. I agree that the soldiers themselves should not be blamed – the shootings clearly were an act of self-defence on their part. As you say, though, the correct response from the IDF would have been for the navy to surround and accompany the flotilla ONCE it entered Israeli waters. Sending in commandos rapelled from helicopters like something from an American action film would be laughable if it wasn’t so tragic. I seriously wonder what the motives of the Israeli government and IDF chiefs are, or whether they are just totally incompetent and don’t realise that these regular disproportionate retaliations do no good at all and just make the state of Israel (most people seem to fail to distinguish between the government and the state itself) ever more unpopular.

    • Benjamin,

      indeed if you engage in illegal civil disobedience you should expect there to be consequences, Gandhi said that. You might however, in this case expect the consequences to be in the realm of deportation, imprisonment or being fined, rather than being shot at. The principle I think stands that violence is only justified to stop other violence, and before the soldiers arrived on the ship, there was no violence. I also think there are many levels of ‘immoral laws’ and that an economic blockade is a long way down the line from a ban on displays of public affection!

      Raphael, I’ll try and address your points in order.

      1) I maintain that the political positions of the protestors is simply not the issue here. It doesn’t effect the key issues if whether or not the blockade is justified, and whether the IDF was right to try and invade the ships.

      2) The international waters point is not irrelevant, as it makes it a legal issue. However this was not a key point of my argument.

      3) I’m not going to go into details of military strategy. It seems to me that my suggestion of surrounding the boats might have worked if the navy had sent enough resources to ensure it was successful. There are other options though, many of which are being debated across the internet this morning. There are reports here
      that top generals opposed the action, presumably they had alternatives in mind.

      4) I agree that we shouldn’t term this a massacre. I also agree that the protestors shouldn’t have responded with any violence. However I believe that injury was almost inevitable once the decision to storm the ship was taken. The fact that there might be some (and we’re talking relatively low level) violent resistance was eminently predictable. I have seen the videos and its not at all clear what is happening. Certainly there should be an independent investigation, which can take evidence from the soldiers and from the protestors (rememeber we’ve heard nothing from them yet).

      5) I agree with the need for context and deeper analysis. I hope that I’ll be able to provide this on this blog. I also hope that coverage of this incident will move towards a focus on the blockade itself, so it may be ended.

  2. I agree. It is becoming apparent that the Israeli military leadership always goes over the top, as they did in Lebanon. They have a logic of their own (=zero tolerance), which is disjointed from political sense, which is already in scarse supply. Finally, when one is under siege, one will look for weapons. I’m not clear why Israel wants the monopoly of weaponry. By beating the opponent into submission, one doesn’t get agreement, only resentment and vengeance. If one wants peace one needs to make peace, not wait for someone else, such as the US, to do it for one!

  3. I think we agree about a lot of stuff, but I think you have called this one somewhat wrong. As with many such incidents in this part of the world, most people (not yourself) instinctively react one way or the other by condemning or defending. It’s more helpful to pause and look a bit harder and I think, as usual, there are multiple layers.

    Firstly, there are two questions: 1) is the blockade legitimate?? and 2) if not, was the Israeli response to the protest legitimate?

    I agree the blockade is illegitimate (although it seems to me that the Israelis have a right to try and stop arms entering Gaza at this time) and the aim of bringing aid to Gaza is a noble one, but what was the aim of the protest?? It was expressly to break the blockade, as well as to bring aid. It is disingenuous to bang on about the noble intentions of the activists. Most of them doubtless had good intentions, but there was clearly a very strong political, anti-Israel agenda amongst at least some of them ( This is neither surprising nor unforgivable, but it is relevant.

    The international waters argument is, by all accounts, irrelevant. The key question is whether or not Israel has the right to board a ship, which had the express intention of breaking the blockade. This, it seems to me, can only be a matter of opinion. If you think the blockade is legitimate, then boarding is legitimate. If not, then it is not. But you do have to answer the question as to how Israel would check the boat for arms. Maybe there are better ways of stopping the ships, but I don’t know that. Do you?? Can you really surround and stop a ship that is determined to get through?? What if it rammed a navy boat? More people might have died and you could hardly expect the navy to accept such a risk.

    However, even for those who condemn the blockade, the incident needs to be put in perspective. There was violent resistance to an incursion onto the ship and, like it or not, if you are a violent protester against an enemy with superior force, then you put yourself at risk. And you have to accept the consequences. It’s wholly different if you are a non-violent protester. If I take part in a sit-down protest and I’m beaten by the police then I have a right to expect a very different response from a situation where I was participating in an aggressive, violent protest. That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t necessarily take part in violent protests, just that I shouldn’t complain overmuch about getting beaten up if I am.

    The coverage of this incident is reflective of the tendency to label such actions massacres, murder etc. No, this was a monumental fuck-up. It makes precisely zero sense for Israel to board the ship in such a manner and in such circumstances if they just wanted to kill a few protesters. If they wanted to do that, there are much less risky ways. Your summary of the resistance is naive or disingenuous. The footage shows people deliberately attacking the soldiers and probably attempting to kill them. This might be understandable, but it renders invalid their claim to be non-violent protesters and it means they have to take a degree of responsibility for their decisions. It is obvious that as soon as a soldier’s life is at risk then his compatriots will do whatever is necessary to save him and if a protester creates such a situation, then they share some of the responsibility. Surely the protesters expected the navy to stop them and is it not likely some of them would have planned for such an eventuality?

    As often is the case, how you evaluate an incident like this depends on the context in which you frame it. If you focus narrowly on the details incident itself, the Israelis come out looking incompetent and reckless, but I don’t think criminal. If you focus on the broader political context then Israel is acting illegitimately (and indeed criminally) as its blockade is unjustified. But both the incident itself and the broader context need to be part of the coverage of such incidents. That way you can have some kind of sensible and maybe even helpful analysis of such incidents and avoid the kind of sub-headlines in today’s newspapers: “The murder of these peace activists will count” (CiF today) and “Flotilla activists weren’t interested in a humanitarian operation; they wanted to cause us damage – and their plan succeeded.”(JPost today).

    In the usual way, only the nutters gained anything out of this incident: the right in Israel is able to retrench and reinforce its claim to being under attack by a hostile world; Hamas and their friends have another cause to accuse Israel of a massacre etc; Fisk and co. have plenty more material for their juicy articles. Ordinary Palestinians and sensible Israelis lose out, as usual.

  4. Brief responses to your points …

    1) Agreed … just saying that focusing on the peaceful and noble nature of the protest was annoying and not especially relevant either
    2) Don’t agree, but I don’t think either of us want to go into the details of international maritime law on this one, especially as probably neither of us know it. I certainly don’t. Either way, I think that is not the main question
    3) Maybe, but we don’t know. I’m not quite sure what is implied by the suggestion that the decision was made to ignore alternatives and go for this particular option. That they wanted to provoke a violent confrontation?? This seems far-fetched to me. I don’t believe that the IDF is reluctant to use excessive force, but I don’t see how it was in anybody’s interests in this case. Stupidity, machismo and callousness may well have been to blame – in which case someone at the IDF or a politician who authorised it should be fired. It won’t happen obviously.
    4) An official investigation is a total waste of time. Its conclusions will simply be rejected by those who don’t like them. As with Cast Lead, an internal Israeli investigation might do some good, to see who was at fault and how.
    5) Agreed and amen selah. The main thing is ending the Gaza blockade, but I for one have no particular suggestions as to how I’m going to bring this about. Any ideas??

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