Originally published in the July-August 2010 issue of The Dot Connector Magazine.
The group of eight ships, known as the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, was a project of the Free Gaza Movement, a group of human rights activists from 37 countries. The ships carried over 700 people including journalists and dignitaries from the US to Malaysia and from Norway to South Africa. The stated goal of the Free Gaza Movement is to raise international awareness about “the prison-like closure of the Gaza Strip” and pressure the international community to “review its sanctions policy and end its support for continued Israeli occupation.” The movement’s board of advisors includes former and serving British, Irish and American politicians and distinguished academics, among others.
To fully understand the motivation of Gaza aid groups such as the Free Gaza movement, we must first take a brief look at the history of the occupied Palestinian territories and the state of Israel. Bear with me then as I try to condense, as objectively as possible, ninety years of history in a few short paragraphs.
Israel-Palestine: A Condensed View
Since the late 1800’s the idea of a Jewish homeland in the area of Palestine had been put forward by Zionist pioneers such as Theodor Herzl and Chaim Weizman. The Zionist claim to a Jewish homeland in Palestine is based on passages within the Torah where the land of Israel is promised to the Jews by God – the legalities of basing a claim on a religious text of dubious origin notwithstanding. In 1896 Herzl visited then ruler of the Ottoman Empire Sultan Abdulhamid II to ask for Palestine as a Jewish homeland. The Sultan refused. Not to be outdone, Weizman and Herzl continued to lobby for the creation of Jewish state in Palestine in the following years, rejecting all other offers (such as land in Uganda or Madagascar).
In 1917, perhaps foreseeing the imminent demise of the Ottoman Empire (in 1918) a protracted period of political pressure from the immensely wealthy Jewish/English banker (and close friend of Weizman Walter Rothschild (the 2nd Baron Rothschild) saw the British government issue a formal statement of policy supporting the creation of a Jewish homeland in the area of modern-day Palestine. The famous Balfour declaration was signed by British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour and declared that the British government “views with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”
With the break-up of the Ottoman Empire (as a result of the first World War) in 1922, control of the area of Palestine fell to the British who were tasked with dividing up the area, supposedly in accordance with the rights and claims of the local population but taking into consideration their aforementioned promise to the Zionists. The Zionist leadership encouraged successive waves of Jewish immigration to Palestine over the following 25 years, (the biggest of which was during the period before and after WWII). Throughout this period, Jewish settlers had formed themselves into paramilitary (and decidedly terrorist) groups to fight against both the native Arab population of Palestine, who were attempting to defend their rights and homeland and against the British military who the settlers increasingly saw as an obstacle to the creation of an official Jewish state. In 1947, 250,000 indigenous Palestinians were expelled by force from their homes and one year later the state of Israel was declared. The following day, the armies of five Arab countries – Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq – attacked Israel, launching the 1948 Arab – Israeli War. After a year of fighting, a ceasefire was declared and temporary borders, known as the Green Line, were established. Jordan annexed what became known as the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and Egypt took control of the Gaza Strip. According to UN estimates, 711,000 Arabs, or about 80% of the initial Arab population of the area that became Israel, were expelled or fled the country due to Israeli aggression.
In 1967, Egypt announced a partial blockade of Israel’s access to the Red Sea. Israel saw these actions as a casus belli for a pre-emptive strike that launched the Six-Day War, in which Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In 1993, the Oslo Accords, which gave the Palestinian National Authority the right to self-govern parts of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, were signed in Washington DC in the presence of Palestinian Liberation Organisation Chairman Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin with US President Bill Clinton playing the part of match maker.
Since 1948, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians had been forced to flee their homes with many still living in exile in Lebanon and Jordan. The majority however have been forced to live either as second class citizens in Israel or under an increasingly oppressive occupation in the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza. Since 1993 the Israeli government has progressively built hundreds of illegal Jewish settlements in the West bank and Gaza. Israeli settlers regularly attack Palestinians and set fire to their fields and crops. To protect these settlements the Israeli government has built and almost completed a wall around the entire West Bank. Due to the route of the wall, many Palestinian villages are completely surrounded.
In 2005 the Israeli government withdrew from Gaza in what at the time was touted as a peace initiative. The reality however is that Gaza is still entirely controlled by Israel and has been turned into the world’s largest open-air prison for its 1.5 million civilian population. An Israeli security fence completely surrounds Gaza on three sides (with the sea on the fourth) with Israel controlling the two civilian entry and exit gates. Palestinians are routinely forced to wait for hours at these gates and run a high risk of being abused by Israeli soldiers and/or turned away. In addition there is a one kilometre buffer zone (called a ‘kill zone’) along the fence which is guarded by remote-controlled machine gun turrets at regular intervals.
Connected via fibre optics to a remote operator station and a command-and-control center, each machine gun-mounted station serves as a type of robotic sniper, capable of enforcing a nearly 1,500-meter-deep no-go zone.
According to the Israeli military the turrets “empower the observers with precision attack lethality and dramatically increase their ability to close kill chains, engaging targets immediately as they are exposed. In addition to the use of direct fire machine guns, observers can also employ precision guided missiles, such as optically and laser guided missiles and weapons.”
The operators of these ‘robo-guns’ are mostly young female Israeli conscripts sitting in front of a screen in a room miles away in Israel watching the Gaza border through the turret’s high-tech camera lens. If they see anyone moving through the “kill zone” towards the fence with Israel, they are authorised to shoot. Many unwary Palestinian civilians have been summarily executed in this way.
The Siege Of Gaza
For the past four years, the Israeli government has maintained an economic blockade by land sea and air of the Gaza strip. The blockade is illegal under international law because Israel is not officially at war with Palestine. Indeed, as the occupying power, Israel has a duty under international law to ensure the welfare of Gaza’s inhabitants, including their rights to health, education, food and adequate housing. Since its indiscriminate bombing of Gaza in January 2009, which constituted collective punishment of the civilian population and left 1,400 Palestinian civilians dead (including 400 children) and over 5,000 wounded, Israel has prevented all building supplies from entering the strip and has intentionally reduced the population to a state of abject destitution as a matter of state policy.
Six thousand Gazan homes were destroyed in the 2009 bombing and thousands of Gaza families now live a cave-man-like existence in the rubble of their former homes and are forced to scavenge for wood to build fires to cook food in the most rudimentary metal pots. Many basic food stuffs are also prohibited by Israel. The decision over which foods to allow and which to prohibit is apparently made arbitrarily with items like coriander, canned fruit, fresh meat and seeds and nuts denied, while aniseed, cinnamon, frozen fruit and chickpeas are allowed. Permitted items however arrive in tiny quantities that fall far below the amount needed to feed the entire population. The policy behind the blockade was summed up by Dov Weisglass, an adviser to former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, in 2006when he said: “It’s like an appointment with a dietician. The Palestinians will get a lot thinner, but won’t die”.
Medical supplies are seriously restricted to Gaza’s hospitals. Many patients suffering from kidney failure for example are routinely told they will die because the necessary equipment and medicines are on the forbidden list. Since the Israeli air forced bombed Gaza’s power plants in 2006, Israel has prevented fuel to run the plants from entering Gaza. As a result, hospitals must deal with power black-outs for 8-12 hours per day. Palestinians suffering from severe life-threatening illnesses that cannot be treated in Gaza hospitals are regularly denied entry into Israel. In his report into the 2009 ‘Operation Cast Lead’ bombing of Gaza, distinguished South African Jewish judge Richard Goldstone exposed the Israeli claim that it was acting in self-defence: “while the Israeli government has sought to portray its operations as essentially a response to rocket attacks in the exercises of its right to self-defence, the [UN] mission considers the plan to have been directed, at least in part, at a different target: the people of Gaza as a whole.”
Many areas of the 25 mile-long coast are no longer usable by Gazans because authorities are forced to pump tens of thousands of cubic meters of raw sewage into the sea every day because Israel forbids the entry of water sanitation equipment. Fisherrmen are routinely shot at by the Israeli navy for the merest infraction of the three mile maritime boundary limit.
90% of Gaza’s water contains high levels of nitrates and chlorides and is officially undrinkable, many however are forced to drink it or die of thirst. 85% of the 1.5 million people in Gaza are dependent on handouts of food from the UN. Rice, sugar oil, lentils and flour in meagre emergency rations are handed out by the UN and are designed to keep a person healthy for at most 2 months in an emergency humanitarian crisis scenario. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees or ‘UNWRA’ has been struggling to feed 800,000 Palestinian refugees in this way for 4 years.
Between the end of the Israeli bombardment of Gaza in January 2009 until June 2010 the IDF killed 47 Palestinians, including 26 civilians, seven of them children; 12 civilians were killed by Israeli snipers in the Gaza ‘kill zones’, gunned down in cold blood; five others died when tunnels between Gaza and Egypt (which are used to smuggle food) were bombed.
In July 2008 a 23-strong human-rights team of prominent South Africans, which included former government ministers supreme court justices, academics and trade union leaders visited the occupied Palestinian territories. Their findings were unequivocal:
“The daily indignity to which the Palestinian population is subjected far outstrips the apartheid regime [of South Africa]. And the effectiveness with which the bureaucracy implements the repressive measures far exceed that of the apartheid regime.”
It was in this context that the Freedom Flotilla set sail in late May 2010 to deliver tons of humanitarian aid to the people of Gaza.
Attack On The Flotilla
The Mavi Marmara, a 300ft Turkish-built merchant vessel, carried by far the largest number of human rights activists – almost 600 in all. The ship’s cargo comprised hundreds of tons of aid including building materials, wheel chairs and medical supplies. The crew and passengers of all the flotilla vessels were fully aware of the danger they faced. In late 2008 a smaller 67ft pleasure boat, the Dignity, was rammed in international waters and almost sunk by the Israeli navy as it attempted to make its way to Gaza to deliver aid. Onboard were Nobel Peace Prize winner Mairead Maguire and Green Party US Presidential Candidate Cynthia McKinney, along with several members of the European Parliament.
Before the flotilla set sail from Greece, the Israeli government declared that none of the ships would be allowed to enter Gazan waters because of concerns that there may be weapons on board. Flotilla organizers however went to great lengths to ensure that the cargo of the Mavi Marmara (and all flotilla boats) were thoroughly checked and vetted by customs officials in Greece and Turkey prior to their departure. The coalition also hired an independent security firm to search the ships and certify that no weapons were on board. The Turkish government, a member-state of the NATO alliance, confirmed that no passengers had ties to extremist groups. These precautionary steps were deliberately taken to prevent Israeli officials from claiming that the Freedom Flotilla posed a ‘security risk’. Israel however, ignored these details and continued to insist that its military would “use all means” to prevent the Flotilla from reaching Gaza’s shore, and that it had a “right to defend itself”.
What happened when the Mavi Marmara and the other vessels arrived within 65 miles of the Gaza coast has been well-documented.
Well-aware that Israel refuses to allow most aid into Gaza, the captain of the Mavi Marmara rejected the suggestion by the Israeli navy that he proceed to the Israeli port of Ashdod and insisted that his destination was Gaza. At this point, the Israeli navy implemented their plan to commandeer the vessel by force. Realising that the Israeli navy was intent on illegally boarding and commandeering the ships in international waters under cover of darkness, some passengers on board the Mavi Marmara sought to arm themselves as best they could in order to defend themselves against the expected and well-known excesses of Israeli soldiers. Using angle grinders that were on board they cut up pieces of the ship’s railing to use as make-shift weapons. Many eyewitness, including Israeli-Arab member of the Israeli parliament Haneen Zoubi who was on board, testified that before a single soldier had set foot on deck, live rounds were fired at the ship and at least two passengers were shot in the head. Zoubi also said that IDF soldiers refused her request that they offer medical aid to several wounded activists who died shortly afterwards. A few passengers appear to have had sling shots and it is possible that others armed themselves with knives from the ship’s kitchen in response to live fire from Israeli boats and Helicopters.
Espen Goffen, a 38-year-old activist from Norway who sailed aboard the Mavi Marmara, said the Israeli commandos on board “started off with some kind of paintball bullets with glass in them that left terrible soft tissue wounds. Then rubber-coated steel bullets were used and then live ammunition. Unable to gain access to the ship via speed boats that had pulled along side, Israeli soldiers began to descend on ropes from two helicopters that appeared overhead. Some passengers, enraged by the murder of at least two passengers and assuming the Israeli intent was to kill, attempted to repel the descending commandos. Video evidence testifies to this fact.
Two hours after the beginning of the attack, 9 passengers lay dead. Provisional post mortems on the dead revealed that they were all shot at close range, 5 had bullet wounds to the head, at least one was shot in the back of the head and two others were shot in the back. Dr Haluk Ince, chair of Turkey’s council of forensic medicine, said: “Approximately 20cm away was the closest. In only one case was there only one entrance wound. The other eight have multiple entrance wounds. [The man killed by a single shot] was shot just in the middle of the forehead with a distant shot.” The oldest victim was 60-year-old Ibrahim Bilgen, a Turkish politician, engineer and activist who was married with six children. He had been shot once in the right temple, once in the right side of his chest, once in the back and once in the hip. The youngest was 19-year-old Furkan Dogan, an American citizen, was shot five times from less that 45cm, in the face, in the back of the head, twice in the leg and once in the back.
More detailed post-mortems released on the 29th June 2010 revealed that all but one of the dead had been shot from above and at close range. In the case of Turkish victim Cetin Topcuoglu, the first bullet entered his head and exited his neck and the second passed through his right shoulder, through his torso and destroyed his liver. The post-mortem evidence adds considerable weight to the claim that not only did the Israeli attack on the Mavi Marmara involve a pre-planned use of lethal force, but that soldiers summarily executed passengers and several people were shot from helicopters. Bizarrely, the autopsy of 61-year-old victim Ibrahim Bilgen revealed a tiny bag containing pellets that was found still intact in his brain. The final official Turkish forensic report stated that all bodies had been washed with alcohol [by Israelis] before being brought to Turkey making it impossible to reach a definite conclusion on the ranges of most shots.
There were no deaths on the other Flotilla boats, however Israeli soldiers used stun grenades, tasers and tear gas and severely beat several passengers.
A People That Shall Dwell Alone
In the days after the attack, Israel was widely condemned for the murders. The Turkish government recalled its ambassador to Israel and cancelled planned joint military Israeli exercises and called for an independent UN inquiry. The Israeli government however continued to claim its soldiers were acting in self-defence and rejected an independent inquiry. Large sections of Israeli society displayed righteous indignation at any criticism of the Israeli action. Official parades celebrating the heroism of the commandos who stormed the ship were held along with demonstrations by schoolchildren giving their unequivocal support for the government against “the new wave of anti-Semitism”. Israeli defence minister Ehud Barak claimed that the intent of the flotilla was not to deliver aid to Gaza but to “humiliate Israel”. However, given the illegal nature of Israel’s blockade of Gaza, there is no way for anyone to independently deliver aid to Gaza without at the same time humiliating Israel and exposing its inhuman treatment of Palestinians.
The Israeli government has worked hard to delegitimise any Palestinian right to their own nation and identity. It is clear that the Israeli blockade of Gaza has little to do with security concerns and everything to do with preventing the emergence of a viable Palestinian state Central to this goal is the continued portrayal of any Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation as ‘terrorism’ when, in reality, resistance (including armed) to an occupying power is a fundamental right laid down in the article four of the third Geneva Convention. According to humanitarian law however, in order to lawfully use force in a conflict, a person must first be designated a lawful ‘combatant’. To be a lawful combatant, a person must belong to an ‘armed resistance group’ and that group must belong to a ‘party’ to the conflict. It is in this fact that we find one of the chief reasons why Israel will never willingly allow the creation of a Palestinian state. As long as Palestine does not have official state status, any Palestinian resistance group cannot claim to be a party in the conflict and must remain a simple independent resistance group, or a ‘terrorist group’ in modern Orwellian parlance.
All Israeli leaders have known that the day that Palestine is officially recognised as an independent state, is the day that Israel will no longer be able to bulldoze Palestinian homes or bomb Palestinian neighbourhoods in the name of fighting terrorism.
The continued deligitimisation of Palestine as a nation then was the main motivation behind the Israeli attack on the Gaza Flotilla. If the Flotilla had succeeded in reaching Gaza, it would not only have established a precedent for future flotillas, but would have sent a clear message to the world that Gaza and Palestine is a sovereign entity, independent of Israeli rule.
By continuing to behave illegally and immorally towards the Palestinian people, and by continuing to thumb its nose at international law and public opinion, Israel places itself and its people in a very precarious position within the international community. Jews have been programmed for centuries by their religious leaders to believe that they are a chosen people. In response to international condemnation following the flotilla attack, the Rabbinical Council of Judea and Samaria issued a statement asserting that the legitimacy of the Jewish people “is not derived from the nations of the world and their poisonous traditions, but rather from the Torah, which teaches us that [Israel] ‘is a people that shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations'”. The flotilla attack “places us at the beginning of the Gog and Magog process where the world is against us, but which ends with the third and final redemption” the statement said.
It would be easy to dismiss this as the archaic rhetoric of a few Rabbis that have no influence on Israeli government or military policy if it were not for the fact that religion clearly plays a central role in the life of Jews from all segments of Israeli society and among the Jewish diaspora. In December 2009 for example, the Israel Defense Force’s chief rabbi told recruits that soldiers who “show mercy” toward the enemy in wartime will be “damned.” Brig. Gen. Avichai Rontzki also told the students that religious individuals made better combat troops. Rontzki referred to Maimonides’ discourse on the laws of war which quotes a passage from the Book of Jeremiah stating: “Cursed be he that doeth the work of the Lord with a slack hand, and cursed be he that keepeth back his sword from blood.”
As a result of centuries of religious indoctrination and decades of government propaganda, Jews in Israel (and elsewhere) appear unable to accept or understand a fundamental truth – that the land that is now Israel was forcibly taken from Palestinians and that a promise by a mythical deity cannot over-rule the basic human rights of millions. As a result of this cognitive dissonance, many Jews react with indignation when Palestinians reject what Jews believe to be very generous offers to donate perhaps one tenth of the former land of Palestine for a Palestinian homeland, a ‘homeland’ which would amount to small prison enclaves surrounded by the Israeli military. It is for this reason that neither Hamas nor a single Palestinian will recognise Israel’s right to exist in it’s current configuration. Nelson Mandela and most Western democracies also refused to recognise the South African apartheid regime’s right to exist.
Israel today is a nation and society marked by a paranoid personality disorder writ large. For most Jews, Israel must always ‘walk alone’ because Jews are specially chosen by god. In a supreme act of personal disempowerment, they have given up any say in their own future or the future of their nation by submitting to the dictates of a religious text of dubious origin that simultaneously glorifies and condemns them. The cry of ‘anti-Semitism’ serves to buffer Israel and the Jews from all criticism because criticism of Israel or the Jews is understood as simply the fulfilment of biblical prophecy that the world will turn against the Jews and Israel. It is hard to think of a better example of pathological thinking or a self-fulfilling prophecy.
It is just this type of pathological thinking that has led Israel to justify it’s inhuman treatment of the Palestinians as ‘self-defence’ and more recently to excuse it’s murderous attack on the Gaza flotilla. The Jews of Israel would do well to wake up to the fact that, in continuing to show such distain and disregard for human life and world opinion, their political leaders are not only in flagrant violation of international law, but have forgotten the original reason for the creation of a Jewish homeland – to safeguard the future of the Jewish people. Israel’s future as a viable state for Jews and others is intrinsically tied to the Palestinians and the defence of their rights to life and liberty. With each Palestinian that dies as a result of Israeli policy in Palestine, with each new Israeli settlement that is built on Palestinian land, the future of Israel as a viable state is further compromised and the security of the Jewish people jeopardized.