After Israeli commandos killed nine peace activists last week aboard a ship that was trying to deliver humanitarian aid to Gaza, even US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the blockade “unsustainable and unacceptable.” But how can it be ended?
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, predictably, is brazening it out. He blames the victims for their own deaths. They were “violent Turkish terror extremists” on a “ship of hate”: people so violent and Turkish and terroristic and extremist that the poor Israeli commandos had no choice but to fire 30 bullets into the nine who were killed, and wound 30-odd others for good measure.
It’s a striking example of how Netanyahu bludgeons reality with words until it conforms to his purposes. Why does he need all those extra words? Could there conceivably be “non-violent Turkish terror extremists”? Or “violent Turkish terror moderates”? Presumably he believes that if you pile on enough synonyms, some people will conclude that there must have been something bad about the victims.
Anybody with the slightest experience of the real world knows what must have happened on the deck of Mavi Marmara, the aid ship in question. A bunch of over-confident, under-trained Israeli commandos ran into unexpected resistance from activists, a few of whom had improvised but serious weapons like iron bars.
Maybe one or two had knives. And one or two of the commandos panicked and opened fire.
Then the rest of the commandos joined in, presumably thinking that the shooters were responding to a real threat. They all blasted away for 20 or 30 seconds, and when their magazines were empty there were 40 bodies on the deck, some writhing in pain and others lying very still. After that, there was nothing the commandos could do but come up with a story that excused their actions.
This atrocious event has put the Israeli policy of blocking supplies to the Gaza Strip in the spotlight and raises two questions. Does it really give Israel added security at a reasonable cost to Palestinians? And if it is doesn’t, then how can it be ended?
The blockade of Gaza began in 2007, after Hamas, which does not recognise the legitimacy of the Israeli state, won a brief civil war and took control of the densely populated territory. It launched thousands of crude, home-made rockets against towns in southernA Israel, killing 10 Israelis, so in early 2009 Israel attacked the Gaza Strip.
At least 1 300 Palestinians died, and only 13 Israelis. Since then Hamas has observed a ceasefire. Other Palestinian militants still launch sporadic rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip, but only one person in Israel has been killed in the past 18 months.
Yet the blockade continues unabated.
Only one-quarter of the normal volume of supplies makes it through the sole Israeli checkpoint. The 1, 5 million people in the Strip have been reduced to abject poverty, and Israel seems determined to keep up the pressure until they reject Hamas (which they backed in free elections in 2007) and overthrow it. Just how they are to do that, however, is not clear.
Israel has the right to prevent weapons from entering the Gaza Strip, but it is hard to see how cement, macaroni, footballs, tomato paste and fruit juices (all banned) fit that description. In any case, the material to make the rockets has always come in through tunnels under the frontier with Egypt, and is unaffected by Israel’s blockade.
The blockade is simply collective punishment, which is illegal under international law. It has not overthrown Hamas, but instead has strengthened its control over the population. It should be ended, but how?
The Israeli government is now on the defensive on this issue, and a cheap and effective tactic would be to send another aid ship or flotilla to run the blockade every week or so.
The cargo should be inspected and certified as weapons-free by the port authorities in Greece, Italy, France or wherever they sail from.
The blockade-runners should not agree to go to an Israeli port, because then their cargo would fall victim to Israel’s blockade rules. (Almost all of Mavi Marmara’s 10 000 tonnes of cargo was construction materials, and would have been blocked by the Israelis.) The ships should not surrender at the first challenge, but sail on towards Gaza and compel the Israelis to conduct hostile boarding operations against them.
The crews should not physically resist the Israeli troops, but some of them would probably be hurt. Would some be killed? Possibly, though Israel will try to avoid another public relations disaster like last week’s. Might they end up serving jail sentences in Israel? Maybe, if Netanyahu’s government is in a particularly self-destructive mood.
Volunteers can easily be found for these aid missions, and so can the money to pay for them. Carry out one operation a week for the next couple of months, and the blockade would almost certainly crumble. Netanyahu’s government would either change its policy or fall. Either outcome would be greeted with pleasure in almost every capital in the world, including Washington.
Gwynne Dyer is a UK-based independent journalist