Stooping low

Published : Jul 02, 2010 00:00 IST

A television grab from the Turkish TV channel Cihan News Agency showing Israeli Navy troops storming the Mavi Marmara.-AFP

A television grab from the Turkish TV channel Cihan News Agency showing Israeli Navy troops storming the Mavi Marmara.-AFP

THERE are few governments in the world which, when confronted with difficult options, unfailingly choose the most violent and odious ones conceivable. Israel is clearly one of them. It has a well-honed propensity to ignore all considerations of sanity, decency or legality and behave like a spoilt child or an outright rogue. It has exercised this right since its creation, which involved one of history's most brutal expulsions of a people from their land.

This trait has become particularly pronounced in the recent past, which has seen Israel retreat into a make-believe self-perception of victimhood, become increasingly paranoid and obsessed with security defined primarily in anti-Palestinian terms, and politically turn further rightwards. Israel's present government is a coalition between what Phyllis Bennis a perceptive analyst of West Asian affairs calls the Right, the Far Right and the Fascist Right (the last group composed of people such as the nasty Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who would like to see all Palestinians driven out of the West bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem).

While it was shocking, Israel's attack on the Freedom Flotilla carrying humanitarian aid for Gaza was not really surprising. It was in line with its past conduct in making the occupation of Palestine increasingly painful and inhuman, dealing with threats, real or imaginary, with pre-emptive military force (as in the 1981 bombing of an Iraqi nuclear reactor under construction or the 1982 and 2006 invasions of Lebanon), violating numerous Security Council resolutions, and maligning even its mildest critics as anti-Semitic. This past January, Israeli secret agents murdered without provocation a Hamas leader in his hotel room in Dubai.

The flotilla operation was in the making for a year and had legitimate objectives: protest and try to break the three-year-long siege of the Gaza Strip by reaching 10,000 tonnes of relief material such as medicines, wheelchairs for the old and disabled and pencils for schoolchildren (whose import is prohibited). Israel has banned the entry of over 2,000 items into Gaza, including cement, glass, paper, iron, cancer medicine, toys, chocolate, desks, fabrics and fruit juice.

Israel could have dealt with the flotilla by negotiating with the organisers so it could inspect the ships on the high seas to ensure that they carried no weapons. Or it could simply have allowed the ships to unload the material. Instead, it chose to send commandos to attack the Mavi Marmara in international waters. They rappelled down from helicopters to storm the ship. When they met with resistance again, legitimate and natural they gunned down at least nine people, including one Turkish-American.

True to type, Israel's military tried to blame the victims by floating a number of stories, including one about the presence of Al Qaeda members in the flotilla, and displaying as weapons pieces of wood and metal that are routinely found on any ship. This was entirely of a piece with Israel's attempt to discredit Richard Goldstone, a South African jurist, himself a Jew, who headed the United Nations Fact-Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict. The Gaza invasion of December 2008 led to 1,400 civilian deaths. Goldstone concluded that Gaza's closure may amount to persecution, a crime against humanity.

The Israeli stories about its commandos coming under attack from armed protesters on the ship were withdrawn when they had no takers. But Israel has stuck to asserting that it exercised the right of self-defence. This is a manifest absurdity. There can be no such right in respect of an attack by heavily armed commandos on unarmed civilians in a vessel in international waters, even if its explicit intention is to break the Gaza blockade.

The blockade amounts to collective punishment of civilians under military occupation, which is prohibited under international law. Israel's naval enforcement zone too is illegal. As United Nations Special Rapporteur for the Occupied Palestinian Territories Richard Falk, an eminent U.S. jurist, puts it: Such a massive form of collective punishment is a crime against humanity, as well as a gross violation of Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. Incidentally, Israel has banned Falk from visiting the occupied territories. More recently, it prevented scholar Noam Chomsky from addressing a meeting in Ramallah.

Israel evidently prefers being seen as savage and brutal, rather than weak. This displays the pathology of the proverbial mad monkey, which makes extremely threatening gestures, forcing its victims to drop the food they are carrying. This policy is profoundly irrational. It has not worked against Israel's adversaries and victims and not even deterred its sworn enemies such as Hamas and Hizbollah. And it has deeply embarrassed and alienated Israel's friends and supporters, who find the cost of defending it steep and rising. As the Israeli daily Haaretz has repeatedly warned, Israel is losing friends and courting enemies.


There is a sour irony about the attack on the Mavi Marmara, which has an important precedent. Sixty-three years ago, a ship named Exodus 1947, loaded with 4,500 Holocaust survivors, left France for Palestine with the aim of breaking the British blockade of the country, then under Britain's mandate. It was stopped by British navy commandos on the high seas, who killed three persons and injured scores. The passengers were forcibly removed at Haifa and humiliated. They were eventually deported to Germany.

The whole world was aghast, but British Prime Minister Ernest Bevin was intent on teaching the Holocaust survivors a lesson for their provocation. Eventually, this episode became a turning point in the process of the creation of the state of Israel. International outrage forced Britain to give up its mandate. The Exodus was soon described as The Ship That Launched a Nation.

Israel's leaders have learned no lessons from the Exodus episode. Ultimately, the Mavi Marmara massacre could prove a tipping point in Israel's occupation of Palestine if international opinion is powerfully mobilised.

It will certainly go down as an act of international brigandage that increased Israel's political isolation. It followed and amplified the public shock at the Gaza invasion in December 2008-January 2009. As the Freedom Flotilla signature campaign stated, this damaged or destroyed at least 11,000 houses, 105 factories, 20 hospitals and clinics, besides 159 schools, universities, playschools and technical institutions. Some 51,800 people were displaced, while 20,000 remain homeless to this day. Israel has permitted virtually no reconstruction; in many ways the Gaza Strip remains as it did on January 18, 2009.


Israel has turned Gaza into the world's largest open-air prison and systematically impoverished it. More than 80 per cent of Gaza's 1.5 million people, of whom 65 per cent are children, are dependent on international food aid; more than 10 per cent are permanently stunted because of undernourishment. In Gaza, unemployment runs at a crushing 50 per cent. Karen Koning Abu Zayd, former head of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, says: Gaza is on the threshold of becoming the first territory to be intentionally reduced to a state of abject destitution, with the knowledge, acquiescence and some would say encouragement of the international community.

The siege of Gaza is a huge political failure and a liability. It must be called off. The sooner Israel accepts this, the better. But Israel is desperately wishing away this reality because it fears that ending the siege will focus critical global attention even more sharply on the occupation of Palestine and trigger its unravelling. This is driving Tel Aviv into yet more wantonly contrarian positions.

This conforms to a past pattern. For instance, Israel had no compunction in building close strategic relations with discriminatory regimes such as apartheid South Africa. This was based on arms sales by Israel when Pretoria faced international sanctions, and more crucially, on clandestine nuclear weapons collaboration. This is documented by U.S.-based scholar Sasha Pulakow-Suransky through recently declassified papers in the just-published Unspoken Alliance. The book shows that South Africa's Defence Minister P.W. Botha asked for nuclear warheads. Shimon Peres, then Israel's Defence Minister, and now its President, responded by offering them in three sizes. The two also signed a wide-ranging agreement on bilateral military relations, with a clause stipulating that its very existence was to remain secret. With Israel's help, South Africa is believed to have made at least six nuclear weapons, which it destroyed when apartheid's end became imminent.

Israel has got away for decades with its roguish behaviour, including brigandage, primarily because of the U.S.' uncritical support. This, in some respects, is a hangover from the Cold War during which Israel was an important ally and a key strategic asset. This is no longer the case. Observers such as Phyllis Bennis believe that the influence of the American-Israeli Political Action Council, the U.S.' legendarily powerful Zionist lobby, is on the decline. She notes that about half of those who have participated in recent anti-occupation demonstrations in the U.S. are American Jews.

The U.S. would have earned much global goodwill, neutralised some jehadi opposition, and gained greatly in security had it criticised the flotilla attack. But it did not. Washington could yet shift its stance if it finds the cost of cleaning up after Israel exorbitant. The recall of their Ambassadors to Israel by many countries and strong statements deploring the attack by some Western states are a pointer in that direction.

Thanks to the attack, Israel has lost its only friend in the Islamic world, Turkey, which has had close military relations with it, both within and outside the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. Turkey recently voted for Israel's unfortunate entry into the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. Turkey is emerging as a regional power and seeks a high profile, as evidenced in the recent agreement with Brazil to exchange slightly enriched uranium from Iran with 20 per cent enriched material for its research reactor.


Israel's regime has been intransigently impervious to friendly advice and will probably be eventually reined the way apartheid South Africa was. This entails a combination of global isolation, sanctions and external pressure, and opposition from its victims in Palestine and sections of domestic and global Jewish opinion. This demands, as Falk urges, urgent action by the world community. It is time to insist on the end of the blockade of Gaza. The worldwide campaign of boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) against Israel is now a moral and political imperative, and needs to be supported and strengthened everywhere.

Falk warns: Unless prompt and decisive action is taken to challenge the Israeli approach to Gaza, all of us will be complicit in criminal policies that are challenging the survival of an entire beleaguered community.

The BDS campaign is gaining momentum in many countries. Regrettably, and to its disgrace, India is not one of them. The Indian government's statement on the flotilla massacre does not even mention Israel.

The government has pursued a pusillanimous and collaborationist policy towards Israel, led by a myopic and imprudent military-purchase relationship, and by intelligence-sharing and counterterrorism training.


India has become the largest client of Israeli military exports, with contracts totalling $9 billion, including $2.5 billion for the Air Force and several hundred millions in ballistic missile defence systems. Israel has found ways of short-circuiting defence procurement procedures, including global tenders, by setting up joint ventures with Indian defence manufacturers and the Defence Research and Development Organisation. India's non-military trade with Israel rose vertiginously 20-fold to $4.1 billion between 2001 and 2009. This is greater than the volume of India's trade with Pakistan. India is committing a historic blunder by building close relations with Israel, just as Israel increasingly becomes a widely despised pariah state. New Delhi must correct course by fundamentally altering its relations with Israel.

To start with, New Delhi must press for an independent international inquiry into the flotilla attack, which brings the guilty to book. But it will not revise its Israel policy unless our political parties, civil society organisations and the intelligentsia launch a powerful BDS campaign. This must demand a complete cessation of military purchases and joint ventures, a boycott of Israeli products, beginning with those made in the occupied territories, and sanctions. A BDS campaign has become an urgent imperative.

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