Point: Another loss of legitimacy for Israel

As a political progressive who really prefers to just get things done, I’ve long shied away from the conflict in Israel/Palestine. So often I’ve seen rooms full of otherwise reasonable people descend into shouting matches. These always seem so much more personal than any other left/right division, so full of hate and closed ears and hurt feelings that I want to stay miles away.

That familiar old pattern has popped up right on cue as the debate rages over Israel’s raid on the Mavi Marmara and the other ships of an aid flotilla bringing supplies into blockaded Gaza. On one side, you have supporters of Israel yelling that the boats were full of fundamentalists, or terrorists, bringing weapons to a terrorist regime and setting upon the soldiers with pipes and knives once boarded.

On the other side, Palestinian supporters argue that it was an innocent flotilla of aid on a mission of relief that was set upon illegally in international waters, where nine Turkish protesters died.

As usual, there’s much to doubt about both accounts. It is quite clear that the Israelis chose to use overwhelming force, and also quite unlikely that there was a shred of weaponry on that ship. At the same time, there are photos of the crews fighting back as they were boarded – the only question being, who fired first? It was certainly not just an aid mission, but also a political one to test Israel’s resolve.

So how to deal with this conflict of accounts? Do we mark it down as another “they said/they said” story and leave it to the inevitable inquiry to deal with? Here, I don’t think we can, because what has been happening in Gaza is not a blockade, and not a security operation, but a siege. It is worth keeping that in mind that those soldiers boarding those ships were helping to preserve what is an egregious violation of international law and common decency.

Gaza has been under siege. There is no other word to describe the strategy of indiscriminately inflicting pain on an entire population to hurt its leadership. Want to stop weapons coming through the border? Fair enough. But show me just one bomb built out of cement or roofing tiles. From all accounts, the civilian population of Gaza has suffered deeply, even with the relief that comes from the smuggler’s tunnels underneath the Egyptian border. They also, of course, bring in weapons – weapons that there was no evidence for aboard the Mavi Marmara and its compatriots.

And so we have one part of the aid flotilla – a real need for basic supplies. We see a prosperous, notionally democratic society deliberately crushing a population and we cringe. Fair enough. But what of the politics? Critics cry that the flotilla was a deliberate provocation, that it was run by Islamist groups with some sort of violent agenda, and that the supplies were going to a group that opposes Israel’s very existence.

To the first, I think it’s reasonable to say “So what?”. That the flotilla was designed to provoke an Israeli response is beyond question. But that’s exactly how protests make a political point – by exposing the moral bankruptcy of the forces they oppose.

Would we criticize someone who staged a peaceful sit-in and was beaten by the police? Not likely, as the police have by their overreaction lost any legitimacy. Israel’s ham-fisted and brutal treatment of the aid ships did this in spades.

But what of the other objection, that it was a fleet sent by Islamist groups explicitly to bolster Hamas? On the supply side, this is clearly something of a red herring.

Having Islamist views clearly doesn’t invalidate the giving of humanitarian aid; there are plenty of religious charities with clear political agendas who operate freely all over the world, many of them Christian fundamentalists of one stripe or another.

Yes, this aid would have gone to a territory ruled by Hamas. Yes, Hamas is a violent movement, one often repressive towards its own people and murderous towards Israelis.

It is also a democratically elected government and a provider of social services, a dissonance not uncommon in the post-colonial world of resistance movements. To write off aid to the people of Gaza on the grounds that some of it reaches Hamas takes oversimplification to the point of brutality.

Thankfully, the Mavi Marmara debacle seems to have led to a loosening of the siege. It is up to both sides to help lift it further – and kneejerk defenses of Israel’s absurd tactics get us nowhere nearer to that.

Historical Numbers

June 2007: Start of Gaza blockade

March 17, 2007: Formation of Hamas government

Casualties in Israel-Palestinian Conflict since 2008: Palestinian 1476, Israeli 16

Gazan unemployment rate: 38.6 per cent

70 per cent of Gazas live off a dollar a day

Pre-blockade 3900 industrial factors with 35 000 workers, post blockade 90 industrial sites employing 860 people

46 per cent of agricultural land is inaccessible or out of production due to land blockade

2 billion in assets destroyed – between 600 and 700 businesses