Since Israel’s invasion and massacre of over 1,400 people in Gaza 18 months ago, dubbed Operation Cast Lead, global civil society movements have stepped up their campaigns for justice and solidarity with Palestinians.
Governments, by contrast, carried on with business as usual, maintaining a complicit silence.
Israel’s lethal attack on the Freedom Flotilla to Gaza may change that, spurring governments to follow the lead of their people and take unprecedented action to check Israel’s growing lawlessness.
One of the bitterest images from Operation Cast Lead was that of smiling European Union heads of government visiting Jerusalem and patting Ehud Olmert, the then Israeli prime minister, on the back as white phosphorus still seared the flesh of Palestinian children a few miles away.
Western countries sometimes expressed mild dismay at Israel’s “excessive” use of force, but still justified the Gaza massacre as “self-defence” – even though Israel could easily have stopped rocket fire from Gaza, if that was its goal, by returning to the negotiated June 2008 ceasefire it egregiously violated the following November.
When the UN-commissioned Goldstone Report documented the extensive evidence of Israeli war crimes and crimes against humanity, including the willful killings of unarmed civilians, few governments paid more than lip service to seeing justice done.
Even worse, after Cast Lead, EU countries and the US sent their navies to help Israel enforce a blockade on Gaza which amounts to collective punishment of the entire population and thus violates the Fourth Geneva Convention governing Israel’s ongoing occupation.
Not one country sent a hospital ship to help treat or evacuate the thousands of wounded, many with horrific injuries that overwhelmed Gaza’s hospitals.
Carrot and stick
The blockade has never been – as Israel and its apologists claim – to stop the smuggling of weapons into Gaza.
Its goal has always been political: to cause the civilian population as much suffering as possible – while still politically excusable – in order for the Palestinians in Gaza to reject and rise up against the Hamas leadership elected in January 2006.
The withholding of food, medicine, schoolbooks, building supplies, among thousands of other items, as well as the right to enter and leave Gaza for any purpose became a weapon to terrorise the civilian population.
At the same time, Western aid was showered on the occupied West Bank – whose ordinary people are still only barely better off than in Gaza – in a “carrot and stick” policy calculated to shift support away from Hamas and toward the Western-backed, unelected Palestinian Authority leadership affiliated with the rival Fatah faction, who have repeatedly demonstrated their unconditional willingness to collaborate with Israel no matter what it does to their people.
“The idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger,” senior Israeli government advisor Dov Weisglass notoriously explained in 2006. By this standard the blockade – supported by several Arab governments and the Quartet (the US, EU, UN secretary-general, and Russia) has been a great success, as numerous studies document alarming increases in child malnutrition as the vast majority of Gaza’s population became dependent on UN food handouts. Hundreds have died for lack of access to proper medical care.
Filling the ‘moral void’
While inaction and complicity characterised the official response, global civil society stepped in to fill the moral and legal void.
In the year and a half since Cast Lead, the global, Palestinian-led campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions on Israel (BDS) has been racking up impressive victories.
From the decisions by Norway’s pension funds and several European banks to divest from certain Israeli companies, to university divestment initiatives, the refusals by international artists to perform in Israel, or the flashmobs that have brought the consumer boycott to supermarkets around the world, Israel sees BDS as a growing “existential threat”.
At this point, the effect may be more psychological than economic but it is exactly the feeling of increasing isolation and pariah status that helped push South Africa’s apartheid rulers to recognise that their regime was untenable and to seek peaceful change with the very people they had so long demonised, dehumanised and oppressed.
Indeed, the BDS movement is only likely to gather pace: world-best-selling Swedish author Henning Mankell who was among the passengers on the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara kidnapped and taken to Israel, said on being freed: “I think we should use the experience of South Africa, where we know that the sanctions had a great impact.”
The Freedom Flotilla represented the very best, and most courageous of this civil society spirit and determination not to abandon fellow human beings to the cruelty, indifference and self-interest of governments.
The immediate response to Israel’s attack on the Flotilla may indicate that governments too are starting to come out of their slumber and shed the paralysing fear of criticising Israel that has assured its impunity for so long.
Indeed, the global reaction demonstrates the growing gap between the US and Israel on one side and the rest of the world on the other.
While Israeli officials scrambled to offer justifications from the ludicrous (elite commandos armed with paint ball guns) to the benign (the attack was an “inspection”), the US has once again stood behind its ally unconditionally.
As the Obama administration forced a watered-down presidential statement in the UN Security Council, Israeli apologists in the mainstream US media repeatedly attempted to excuse Israel’s actions as lawful and legitimate.
Senior administration officials, including Joe Biden, the vice president, openly began to echo their Israeli counterparts that Israel’s attack was not only legitimate but justified by its security needs.
Despite the predictable and shameless US reaction, international condemnation has been unusually robust.
In his speech to the Turkish parliament following the attack, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, denounced Israeli “state terrorism” and demanded that the international community exact a price.
Erdogan vowed that “Turkey will never turn its back on Gaza,” and that it would continue its campaign to lift the blockade and hold Israel accountable even if it had to do so alone.
There are hopeful signs it may not have to.
European and other countries summoned Israeli ambassadors and several recalled their envoys from Tel Aviv.
Franco Frattini, the Italian foreign minister and one of Israel’s staunchest apologists in Europe, said his country “absolutely deplored the slaying of civilians” and demanded that Israel “must give an explanation to the international community” of killings he deemed “absolutely unacceptable, whatever the flotilla’s aims”.
Small countries showed the greatest courage and clarity. Nicaragua suspended diplomatic ties completely, citing Israel’s “illegal attack”. Brian Cowen, Ireland’s prime minister, told parliament in Dublin that his government had “formally requested” of Israel that the vessel Rachel Corrie still heading toward Gaza, be allowed to proceed, and warned of the “most serious consequences” should Israel use violence against it.
The boat – named after the young American peace activist killed by Israeli occupation forces in Gaza in 2003 – is carrying Malaysian and Irish activists and politicians including Nobel Peace Prize winner Mairead Maguire.
Crossed a threshold
These are still small actions, but they indicate Israel may have crossed a threshold where it can no longer take appeasement and complicity for granted.
It is a cumulative process – each successive outrage has diminished the reserve of goodwill and forbearance Israel enjoyed.
Even if most governments are not quite ready to go from words to effective actions, growing public outrage will eventually push them to impose official sanctions.
Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, may have hastened that day with his fulsome pride in, and praise for, the slaughter at sea even after the outpouring of international condemnation.
Despite its intensive efforts to hide and spin what happened aboard the Mavi Marmara in the early hours of May 31, the world saw Israel use exactly the sort of indiscriminate brutality documented in the Goldstone Report.
This time, however, it was not just “expendable” Palestinians or Lebanese who were Israel’s victims – but people from 32 countries and every continent. It was the day the whole world became Gaza. And like the people of Gaza, the world is unlikely to take it lying down.
Ali Abunimah is author of One Country, A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse and co-founder of The Electronic Intifada (http://www.electronicintifada.net).