By Richard Falk, Al Jazeera – 2 July 2011
The reports that two of the foreign flagged ships planning to be part of the ten vessel Freedom Flotilla II experienced similar forms of disabling sabotage creates strong circumstantial evidence of Israeli responsibility.
It stretches the imagination to suppose that a sophisticated cutting of the propeller shafts of both ships is a coincidence with no involvement by Israel’s Mossad, long infamous for its overseas criminal acts in support of contested Israeli national interests. Recalling the lethal encounter in international waters with Freedom Flotilla I that took place on May 31, 2010 and the frantic diplomatic campaign by Tel Aviv to prevent this second challenge to the Gaza blockade by peace activists and humanitarian aid workers, such conduct by a state against this latest civil society initiative, if further validated by incriminating evidence, should be formally condemned as a form of ‘state terrorism’ or even as an act of war by a state against global civil society.
The Israeli Government has so far done little to deny its culpability. Its highest officials speak of the allegations in self-righteous language that is typically diversionary, asserting an irrelevant right of self-defense, which supposedly comes mysteriously into play whenever civil society acts nonviolently to break the siege of Gaza that has persisted for more than four years.
From the perspective of the obligations to uphold international law it is the Flotilla participants who are acting legally and morally, certainly well within their rights, and it is Israel and their friends that are resorting to a variety of legally and morally dubious tactics to insulate this cruel and unlawful blockade from what is essentially a symbolic challenge.
The most relevant precedent for such government-sponsored sabotage is the Rainbow Warrior incident of 1985. There, French agents detonated explosives on a Greenpeace (an environmental NGO) fishing trawler docked in the Auckland, New Zealand harbour prior to proactively challenging the French plans to conduct underwater nuclear tests off the shore of the nearby Pacific atoll, Moruroa.
Fernando Pereira, a Greenpeace activist, and the photographer for the mission, was killed by the explosions, although the devices were detonated at a time when no one from Greenpeace was expected to be on board the vessel. At first, the French government completely denied involvement, later as incriminating evidence mounted, Paris officially claimed that its agents who were identified as being near the scene were only spying on Greenpeace activities and had nothing to do with the explosives, and later still, as the evidence of French culpability became undeniable, officials in France finally admitted government responsibility for this violent undertaking to eliminate activist opposition to their nuclear test, even acknowledging that the operation had been given the somewhat confessional code-name of Operation Satanique.
After some further months, the French Prime Minister, Laurent Fabius issued a contrite statement: “The truth is cruel. Agents of the French secret service sank the boat. They were acting on orders.” These orders were later confirmed to have come from the highest French leader, the president of the Republic, Francois Mitterand.
The French agents had by then been arrested by the New Zealand police, charged with arson, willful damage, and murder, but due to pressure from the French government that included a threatened European economic embargo on New Zealand exports, a guilty plea to lesser charges of manslaughter was accepted by the Auckland court, resulting in a ten year prison sentence, and accompanied by an inter-governmental deal. The French paid New Zealand $6.5 million and issued an apology. The convicted agents were transferred to a French military base on Hao atoll, and were later wrongly released after being minimally confined in comfortable quarters for two years.
It is useful to compare the Flotilla II unfolding experience with the Rainbow Warrior incident. At the time, the French nuclear tests in the Pacific were considered legal, although intensely contested, while the blockade of Israel is widely viewed as a prolonged instance of collective punishment in violation of international humanitarian law, specifically Article 33 of the 4th Geneva Convention.
A person was unintentionally killed by the French acts of sabotage, and so far no one has died as a result of these efforts to disable and interfere with Flotilla ships, although the Irish vessel, MV Saoirse (‘freedom’ in Gaelic), was disabled in such a way that if the damage had not been discovered before heading to sea, the ship would reportedly have likely sunk with many passengers put at extreme risk.
Perhaps, the most important distinction of all, is the failure of France to claim any right to act violently against peaceful protesters even though the French state was officially engaged in an activity directly associated with its national security (weapons development). In contrast, the Israelis are seeking to avoid having their universally unpopular Gaza policies further delegitimised, and claim an entitlement to engage in violent action, even if it endangers nonviolent civilians.
Any reasonably informed person knows that the Israeli alleged concern about weapons smuggling is a smokescreen with no substance. The Flotilla organisers have credibly pledged nonviolence, have offered to allow inspectors examine the cargo, and have invited respected journalists to be on board the vessels. There is zero prospect of weapons being allowed on board any of these ships, and the Israelis undoubtedly realise this, as does Washington. To insist that this demonstrably peaceful activism poses a threat to Israeli security while hardly ever mentioning the hundreds of unmonitored tunnels that are in daily use along the Gaza border with Egypt makes a mockery of the Israeli argument.
Long before the flotilla actually set sail, with typical propagandistic fervor and diplomatic finesse, supported every inch of the way by its many powerful friends in Washington, Israel zealously engaged in a concerted campaign to discredit the shipment of humanitarian aid to the besieged people of Gaza. By verbal acrobatics reminding us that Orwell’s warnings about the debasement of political language (1984) remains as relevant as ever, Israel has been trying to portray dedicated peace activists and the cultural icons among their ranks as ‘terrorists’ and arms dealers. As might be expected, much of the media, especially in the United States, has taken at face value such scandalous accusations, or at the very least has put them forward as accounting for the bitter complaint by Israel that the flotilla is being used as a humanitarian front behind which arms are being smuggled into Israel.
On a second level of Orwellian distortion, a somewhat more subtle case against the flotilla has been put forward. The daily existence of the entrapped, impoverished, and mentally and physically debilitated Gazans have been depicted by Israeli propagandists as if they were enjoying a glitzy pleasure kingdom that benefits its 1.6 million inhabitants. No less a journalistic personality than Ethan Bronner, long a skilled Israeli apologist, opens a front page story in the New York Times newspaper on June 28, 2011, with the following absurdly glowing description of the situation in Gaza: “Two luxury hotels are opening in Gaza this month. Thousands of new cars are plying the roads. A second shopping mall – with escalators imported from Israel – will open next month. Hundreds of homes and two dozen schools are about to go up. A Hamas-run farm where Jewish settlements once stood is producing enough fruit that Israeli imports are tapering off.”
What makes this travesty on conditions in Gaza newsworthy is not these good things that are supposedly happening, but its relevance to the Israeli contention that the humanitarian rationale for the flotilla mission is fatuous and unnecessary because life for Gazans, despite appearances to the contrary, is going along in sprightly fashion behind the barbed wire and walls that enclose the enclave. It comes as no surprise that Bronner immediately connects his puff opening with the anti-flotilla campaign: “As pro-Palestinian activists prepare to set sail aboard a flotilla aimed at maintaining an international spotlight on Gaza and pressure on Israel, the isolated Palestinian coastal enclave is experiencing its first real period of economic growth since the siege they are protesting began in 2007.”
Later on in the story, presumably to avoid losing all credibility as an objective reporter, Bronner acknowledges some of the darker sides of life in Gaza, but in a manner that does little to challenge the dominant message of his article: since there is no genuine humanitarian crisis in Gaza, the real motivations of Flotilla organisers must be either to delegitimise Israel or to undermine the country’s reasonable security measures. It is a portrayal that is echoed by the assertion by the Chief of Staff of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), Benny Gantz, that the people of Gaza are enjoying a ‘comfortable lifestyle.’ Ehud Barak, the Minister of Defense, joins the chorus with his suggestion that if the Flotilla activists were sincere in their humanitarian commitment they would forget the people of Gaza and start working for the release of the sole Israeli prisoner, Gilad Shalit, and of course, be silent about the several thousand Palestinians, including numerous children, being held by Israel in detention under harsh conditions.
Poverty and unemployment
A first level of response to such distortions is to point to the authoritative and highly data-based report released last month by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) on the economic conditions in Gaza with special attention to labor. Among its highlights is the disclosure that the unemployment rate in Gaza has climbed to 45.2 per cent, which appears to be the highest in the world. This alarming figure was coupled with a 7.9 per cent decline in the purchasing power of average monthly wages for the those Palestinians during the last half of 2010 lucky enough to have a job. There has been an alarming overall decline of 34.5 per cent in the purchasing power of workers for the period since 2006. It is further estimated that 300,000 Gazans now subsist on less than $1 per day.
And this is not all. Ninety five per cent of the water supply in Gaza is unsafe for human consumption, the electricity is insufficient for the needs of the population, causing frequent blackouts. Worse still, the health system is near collapse, with no supply of many vital medicines, and most other medicines in Gaza are not reliable because they are being held beyond their expiration dates. There are numerous recent reports of curtailed services in Gaza hospitals, cancelled surgeries and closures because of the absence of essential medical supplies. And perhaps, worst of all, no exports of any kind from Gaza are allowed, which means that Gazans have become almost totally dependent on UN handouts and the machinations of black marketers just to stay alive.
But the material conditions of deprivation do not begin to describe the ordeal endured by the Gazan population. To be entrapped in such an impoverished and crowded areas for a few days would be a hardship, but to be denied entry or exit over a period of four years is itself a humanitarian disaster even if Gaza was indeed the Switzerland of the Middle East that Israeli leaders would have the world believe. Additionally, Israel uses violence across the borders at times and places of its choosing, killing and wounding many, and terrifying the entire Gazan population. The debris of the 2008-09 massive attacks has mostly not been cleared, nor have many of the destroyed homes and buildings been reconstructed.
To view this cumulative set of conditions as other than a severe humanitarian crisis, intensified by an illegal blockade, is grotesque. It is compounded by another Orwellian maneuver. The American Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, had the temerity to say a few days ago that “.. it’s not helpful for there to be flotillas that try to provoke actions by entering into Israeli waters and creating a situation in which Israelis have a right to defend themselves.” Should we not ask ‘who is provoking whom?’ Are Israelis defending themselves or insulating their criminality in Gaza from a peaceful and entirely appropriate challenge, especially considering the passivity of governments and the UN that have allowed this particular humanitarian catastrophe to go on and on? Since when does a sovereign state have a right of self-defense against peace activists and humanitarian aid workers?
Shining through the darkness of this experience of obstructing Flotilla II is the raw nerve of the illegitimacy of Israeli occupation policy. Neither the Flotilla movement nor the somewhat complementary BDS campaign are questioning the legitimacy of Israel except to the extent that unyielding and expansionist Zionist leadership undermine the fundamental rights of the Palestinian people, including the rights of the 5-7 million Palestinians living in refugee camps or in exile or the rights of the 1.5 million Palestinians whom have been subject to a range of discriminations ever since the establishment of Israel in 1948. A just and sustainable peace for both peoples requires an acknowledgement of these rights. Such rights are truly inalienable, and do not lapse because of their long suppression. This is ultimately is what the Flotilla II encounter is really about, and this is also why Israel finds it so dangerous.
Richard Falk is Albert G. Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and Visiting Distinguished Professor in Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He has authored and edited numerous publications spanning a period of five decades, most recently editing the volume International Law and the Third World: Reshaping Justice (Routledge, 2008).
He is currently serving his third year of a six year term as a United Nations Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights.