What were they thinking?

In an edited extract from the forthcoming book, Midnight on the Mavi Marmara: the attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla and how it changed the course of the Israel/Palestine conflict, Rashid Khalidi considers the context and implications of Israel's act of state piracy

September 16, 2010
8 min read

First, tragic though these events were, we must not lose sight of the circumstance that engendered them. This is Israel’s ongoing siege of 1.5 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. In spite of its much trumpeted ‘loosening’ of its blockade – which has happened solely because of the courageous actions of those who organised and took part in this and earlier humanitarian missions- the siege of Gaza is still in force.

What happens inside Gaza is subject to a barrage of disinformation propagated by the disciplined international public relations machine that has been one of the great strengths of the Zionist movement since its inception. In effect denying the humanity of 1.5 million Palestinians, Israel describes the Gaza Strip as a ‘terrorist entity’. It thereby justifies any manner of deprivation and abuses against the civilian population. These actions are then covered up with false reports that Gazans are thriving on the generous amounts of food that Israel magnanimously allows them.

This propaganda contradicts all reports from Gaza, which depict an entire population penned into an open-air prison camp with their economy crippled by the blockade, suffering appalling public health, and prevented from leaving freely or rebuilding after the devastation of Israel’s assault in 2008-2009.

The cumulative effect of this siege amounts to collective punishment under belligerent occupation (which Israel’s high seas blockade has again proven is still in place). This constitutes a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, and is a potential war crime and perhaps a crime against humanity. These were among the conclusions of the report of the committee headed by the respected international jurist, Judge Richard Goldstone. The saga of the flotilla has brought further attention to the reality of Gaza and has further shredded the screen of lies Israel has erected to conceal its actions there.

The media view

Second, it is worth reflecting on discrepancies between how the attack on the Mavi Marmara was reported by the mainstream American media and how it was depicted elsewhere. Utilising what has become a favoured tactic for muzzling the press, one perfected during the 2008-2009 assault on Gaza – keeping the victims forcibly under wraps and isolated from reporters – Israeli forces kidnapped the flotilla passengers, stole their phones and cameras, and held them incommunicado for two days.

All the while, Israel’s PR machine tirelessly propagated its fanciful depiction of the events that took place at sea. Because there was initially little access to alternate sources of information, the Israeli spinners thus had a crucial 24-48 hours in which to establish their false version of events. This concoction quickly became ascendant in the mainstream American media and on Capitol Hill, where politicians soon fell over one another striving to read the lines fed to them by Israel.

As those detained at sea were released, the truth of what happened on the ships eventually came out. These facts, however, were slow to be picked up by the US media. They never made any impact on the American political sphere. The situation was quite different everywhere else in the world. There, what actually happened on the hijacked ships very quickly asserted itself over the fairy tale retailed by the Israeli government about poor defenceless Israelis being viciously assaulted by those on the humanitarian flotilla.

In virtually every European country, including those that are generally pro-Israel, and in the rest of the world, the bulk of the media and public opinion did not swallow this ludicrous Israeli story. Even in Israel, many journalists and commentators were not taken in by the government line, and described the operation as the brutal fiasco it was. However, for the Netanyahu government and its supporters, the fact that their skewed version of reality was rejected virtually everywhere was simply taken as further evidence that Israel lives beleaguered in a world populated by anti-Semites.

Attack on an ally

This brings us to the third and perhaps most interesting reflection. What could Israel’s leaders have been thinking when they ordered an attack on a Turkish-flagged ship on the high seas, knowing that Turkey is and has been for over half a century Israel’s only Middle East ally? This could also be asked of many earlier Israeli decisions. Previously, the answer was in large part a smug certainty in Jerusalem, where the political elite is located, and in the Qirya (the Israeli Pentagon) in Tel Aviv, that the US would cover for Israel, whatever happened.

In this case also, the US continued to cover for Israel in the UN security council, accepting an Israeli-controlled investigation into the attack on the flotilla instead of an impartial international one. One can judge the surreal atmosphere in Washington from the fact that 329 representatives and 87 senators signed letters demanding support for Israel’s act of ‘self-defence’.

Needless to say, many reasonable options open to the Obama administration were dismissed out of hand. These ranged from invoking Nato solidarity in the face of an unprovoked, lethal attack on the high seas on a ship belonging to an alliance member-state, to simply abstaining on a security council resolution condemning Israel’s action and demanding a genuine international investigation with Turkish participation. Naturally, it was unimaginable that Washington would allow the Israeli navy to be treated as it should have been: like those engaged in non-state piracy off the Somali coast.

Despite this exhibition of fealty to Israel, however, the US executive is beginning to express dissent from some Israeli policies. This was apparent over issues of nuclear non-proliferation, where the US position of effectively putting Israel on the same level as Iran has made the Israeli government quietly furious and its partisans noisily apoplectic; over public comments by the most senior officials from the president down implicitly questioning Israel’s strategic value to the US; and over a reiteration that the US considers East Jerusalem to be occupied territory.

So, given its strained relations with the Obama administration, why has the Netanyahu government chosen to spurn its sole Middle Eastern ally? One hesitates to believe that the fevered writings of Israel’s neocon boosters like Michael Rubin, who has proclaimed Turkey ‘an Islamic republic’ and announced that it long ago shifted from being an ally to an enemy, could possibly reflect the thinking of Israeli leaders. But this Israeli government may have reached rock bottom: they may actually believe their own maudlin propaganda about the entire world being against them, and may therefore think that since Israel will be condemned anyway, it should do as it pleases.

Misreading

Remarkably, Israel’s leaders appear to have both misread how the Turkish government and people would respond to an attack on one of its ships, and to have decided it did not matter anyway. They may have arrogantly assumed that just as they could defy Washington over settlements in the hope that the Obama administration would lose strength in the November 2010 midterm elections and would be gone after those of 2012, they could also force the US to choose Israel over Turkey.

The latter is a grave misreading of the strategic value of both countries to the US. Israel is declining in importance for many US policy-makers, and indeed is coming to be seen as a problem. Turkey is not just a Nato ally with troops in Afghanistan, and with influence in crucial regions ranging from the Aegean, the Balkans, the Caucasus, and central Asia to the Middle East. It is also facilitating US withdrawal from Iraq, and, like all Middle Eastern states except Israel, has a sane and pragmatic understanding of how to deal with regional problems created by Iran’s clerical regime.

Not all in the Israeli hierarchy are blind to these larger realities. ‘Israel is gradually turning from an asset to the United States to a burden,’ the chief of the Mossad intelligence service told an Israeli Knesset committee soon after the flotilla fiasco. Two former prime ministers earlier warned that if Israel stays on its present course, it will become an international pariah. But a circle-the-wagons mentality has taken hold of the Israeli political elite. When one adds their longstanding addiction to the use of force, one understands otherwise inexplicable actions, from the assaults on Lebanon in 2006, to Gaza in 2008-2009, to that on the Mavi Marmara. As John Mearsheimer put it recently, this elite ‘remains firmly committed to the belief that what cannot be solved by force can be solved with greater force’.

Israel was established by using force to establish facts on the ground in Palestine, and by savvy control of the discourse about Palestine. But the once-formidable Israeli PR machine is no longer up to its task, for it is being asked to ‘sell’ policies – endless occupation, rank discrimination, the siege of a civilian population, savage attacks on neighbours – that are increasingly abhorrent to people the world over. Barring a rapid, radical change in these policies, this is a recipe for the total isolation of Israel. n

Rashid Khalidi is Edward Said professor of Arab studies at Columbia University and author of Palestinian Identity, The Iron Cage and, most recently, Sowing Crisis: The Cold War and American Dominance in the Middle East

Red Pepper readers’ offer: 25 per cent off both the paperback and ebook editions of Midnight on the Mavi Marmara. Go to www.orbooks.com and enter the code REDPEPPER25

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