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 31 May 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 behavior of the Greek Government, surely a reflection of its precarious financial and political situation, also violates the law of the sea: foreign flagged vessels can be detained in port only if they are acting in violation of national law or are proven to be unseaworthy and dangerous to international navigation. Otherwise, interference by detention or by seizing while en route within Greek territorial waters is an unlawful interference with the right of innocent passage. Greece would be very vulnerable to defeat and damages if the Freedom Flotilla victims of these encroachment on rights were to have recourse to the Hamburg International Tribunal for Law of the Sea.
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 harbor prior to proactively challenging the French plans to conduct underwater nuclear tests off the shore of the nearby Pacific atoll, Moruroa. Fernando Pereira , Greenpeace photographer for the mission, was killed by the explosions, although the devices were detonated at night 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 bizarre, although self-incriminating, code-name of Operation Satanique.
After some further months of controversy the French Prime Minister, Laurent Fabius cleared the air by issuing a contrite statement: “The truth is cruel. Agents of the French secret service sank the boat. They were acting on orders.” (the decision to destroy the Rainbow Warrior were later confirmed to have come from France’s supreme leader at the time, the president of the Republic, Francois Mitterand) The French agents who 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, the charges were reduced. The French defendants were allowed to enter a guilty plea to lesser charges of manslaughter that was accepted by the Auckland court, resulting in a ten-year prison sentence, and later supplemented by an inter-governmental deal that virtually eliminated the punishment. The French paid New Zealand $6.5 million and issued an apology, while the convicted agents were transferred to a French military base on Hao atoll, and were later wrongly released only two years after being genteelly confined in comfortable quarters provided by the base.
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. Although Israel could argue that it had a right to monitor ships suspected of carrying arms to occupied Gaza, the Freedom Flotilla II ships made themselves available for inspection, and there was no sufficient security justification for the blockade as the investigation by the UN Human Rights Council of the 2010 flotilla incident made clear. The overriding role of the blockade is to inflict punitive damage on the people of Gaza. Even before the blockade was imposed in 2007 all shipments at the Gaza crossing points were painstakingly monitored by Israel for smuggled weapons.
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 reportedly would have likely sunk with many passengers put at extreme risk of death. Perhaps, the most important distinction of all, is the failure 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 and criminal Gaza policies further delegitimized, and claim the entitlement as a sovereign state to engage in violent action, even if it endangers nonviolent civilians. In effect, it is a declaration of war by Israel against global civil society as over 50 nationalities are represented among the passengers on the Flotilla ships.
Any reasonably informed person knows that the Israeli alleged concern about weapons smuggling to Gaza is a smokescreen without substance. The Flotilla organizers have credibly pledged nonviolence, have offered to allow inspectors to 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 (even without any inspection), and the Israelis undoubtedly realize this, as does Washington. To insist that this demonstrably peaceful activism mainly by dedicated adherents of nonviolent militancy 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 hasbara 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 extreme debasement of political language (1984) remains all too relevant as ever, Israel has been trying to portray committed peace activists and cultural icons (e.g. Alice Walker) as harboring ‘terrorists’ and arms dealers, if not being themselves willing accomplices. 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 credibly accounting for the bitter complaint by Israel that Flotilla II 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, but no less insidious, case against the Flotilla has been put forward. The daily existence of the entrapped, impoverished, and mentally and physically debilitated Gazans have been widely 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 in the American setting, opens a front page story in the NY Times (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 the life of the Gazans, despite appearances to the contrary, is going along in sprightly fashion despite the barbed wire and prison walls that enclose Gaza. It comes as no surprise that Bronner immediately connects his puff opening about conditions in Gaza with the Israeli 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 in that deceptive NY Times style, 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 organizers must be either to delegitimize Israel or to mount an irresponsible challenge to 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, who has the temerity to assert 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 about the people of Gaza and turn their attention a genuine humanitarian challenge: arranging the release of the sole Israeli prisoner, Gilad Shalit, held by Hamas. Of course, Barak is silent about the several thousand Palestinians, including numerous children, being held by Israel, sometimes for years, in detention under harsh conditions.
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%, which appears to be the highest in the world. This alarming figure was coupled with a 7.9% 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% 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. 95% 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, most crippling of all, no exports of any kind from Gaza have been allowed during the entire period of the blockade and siege. This means that most Gazans have become almost totally dependent on UN handouts and the machinations of black marketers just to subsist.
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 a crime, a distinct humanitarian disaster even if Gaza was indeed the Switzerland of the Middle East that Israeli leaders are seeking to have the world believe. Additionally, Israel uses violence across its 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 “..its 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? At the very least should not Clinton have implored the new Egyptian leadership to open and expand the Rafah Crossing to allow Gazans a reliable means of exit and entry?
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 as such, but they are challenging the unyielding and expansionist Zionist leadership that denies the fundamental rights of the Palestinian people living under occupation, but also the rights of the 5-7 million Palestinians living in refugee camps or in exile and the rights of the 1.5 million Palestinians that 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 and implementation of these rights. Such rights are truly inalienable, and do not lapse because of their long suppression. This is ultimately what the Flotilla II encounter is really about, and this is also why Israel finds it so dangerous.
Richard Falk is an international law and international relations scholar who taught at Princeton University for forty years. Since 2002 he has lived in Santa Barbara, California, and taught at the local campus of the University of California in Global and International Studies and since 2005 chaired the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. On March 26, 2008, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) appointed Falk to a six-year term as a United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian territories. He blogs at Citizen Pilgrimage.