July 5, 2010

by Praful Bidwai

When Israel launched a commando attack on the Freedom Flotilla carrying humanitarian assistance to the Gaza Strip, its leaders could scarcely have imagined that they would have to beat a retreat on the Gaza blockade issue in less than three weeks. Yet, such was the global public revulsion at the murderous assault on the Mavi Marmara in international waters—even among Israel’s allies and supporters—that Israel had to relax the blockade. The blockade banned more than 2,000 items, including cement, glass, paper, iron, pencils, cancer medicines, toys, chocolate, fabrics and fruit juice.

Two-thirds of Israelis disapproved of the flotilla attack—probably more because it showed their country in poor light, than out of moral outrage at its illegality and brutality. Now, even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is disowning the three-year-old blockade and says it’s a policy he inherited from his predecessors. This is as clear a confession as one might expect from a macho Right-wing leader that Israel’s Gaza strategy has politically failed.

Israel’s admission of defeat constitutes a major victory for the international civil society mobilisation against Palestine’s occupation. The fact that 600 activists—from over 50 different countries—organised the Freedom Flotilla with great determination impressed large numbers of people. As Phyllis Bennis, a West Asia expert and an organiser of the US Palestinian solidarity movement, puts it: “The fact that so many non-Palestinians were killed by the Israeli commandos highlighted the willingness of global activists to take risks on behalf of human rights that governments and the UN were unwilling to defend. It provided a powerful image of an increasingly empowered civil society with the capacity to transform events directly.”

Non-violence, which defined the dominant character of the mobilisation, gave it special moral legitimacy. As did its strong defence of international law. Bennis says: “Israel was not condemned because its commandos were mean and brutal … but because the attack … was a violation of international law. Most crucially, the flotilla held Israel's entire blockade of Gaza up to the scrutiny of international law—and found it wanting….”

Also on the winning side is Turkey which, unlike the Arab states, translated its tough anti-blockade stand into active solidarity with civil society organisations. Turkey’s response to the attack, in which 19 Turks (including a Turkish-American) were killed, was strong and credible: it recalled its ambassador, rebuffed Israel by cancelling military exercises with it, and demanded—and obtained—the immediate release of all those captured.

Turkey has emerged from the crisis as a self-confident Middle Power with the courage to stand up to the US. Turkey’s stock has risen politically. It is looking to a more ambitious role in regional affairs.

Until recently, Turkey had very good economic and military relations with Israel both within and outside NATO. Turkey even voted for Israel’s entry into the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development,. Now, Israel has lost Turkey, its only friend in the Muslim world. Turkey recently took the lead with Brazil in negotiating an agreement with Iran which provides an alternative to the extreme conditions the US demands in respect of Iran’s nuclear programme. Under it, Iran will exchange low-enriched uranium with Turkey and Brazil in return for medium-enriched material for its research reactor. This will promote accountable behaviour on Iran’s part.

Turkey’s changed posture is likely to motivate other countries to play a less pro-US role. As will the strong condemnation of Israel’s flotilla raid even by the conservative UK and French governments, which declared it “indefensible”. The UN Security Council chair statement also unequivocally criticised the attack. Malaysia and Ireland have stepped up humanitarian efforts for Gaza.

The first ship to carry aid to Gaza after the flotilla was received less than murderously by Israel. It was named the Rachel Corrie, after the young woman who was mowed down by Israeli bulldozers in 2003 for peacefully protesting the demolition of Palestinian homes.

The flotilla massacre highlights the cruelty and inhumanity of the blockade of Gaza. The blockade violates Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention which prohibits collective punishment of a people or a group under military occupation. The blockade follows Israel’s invasion of Gaza in December 2008, which killed 1,400 people and damaged or destroyed 11,000 houses, 105 factories, 20 hospitals and clinics, besides 159 schools and educational institutions. Some 51,800 people were displaced, while 20,000 remain homeless. Israel has permitted virtually no reconstruction.

Israel has turned Gaza into the world’s largest open-air prison and systematically inflicted destitution on one of the world’s poorest regions. More than 80 percent of Gaza’s 1.5 million people depend on international food aid, of whom 65 percent are children. In Gaza, unemployment runs at a crushing 50 percent. Karen Koning Abu Zayd, former head of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency says: “Gaza is on the threshold of becoming the first territory to be intentionally reduced to a state of abject destitution, with the knowledge, acquiescence and—some would say—encouragement of the international community.”

Israel has long behaved like a lawless state. It has ignored the highest number of Security Council resolutions of all countries. It has invaded neighbours and occupied territories in Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. It assassinates political opponents and massacres refugees. It has at least 200 nuclear weapons. It collaborated with apartheid South Africa on nuclear weapons. Israel has wrecked the Oslo peace process and continues to expand its illegal settlements.

Israel has got away with its roguish behaviour, including international brigandage, primarily because the United States uncritically supported it. This, in some respects, is a hangover from the Cold War when Israel was an important strategic asset. It no longer is. The influence of the American-Israeli Political Action Council, the legendarily powerful Zionist lobby, is now declining. Pro-Palestinian activists say that about half of those who have participated in recent anti-occupation demonstrations in the US are Jews.

By not condemning Israel’s flotilla attack, the US lost an opportunity to earn goodwill in the Islamic world. If the US persists with its present policy, including a $30 billion 10-year aid package to Israel, the political costs of apologising for and cleaning up after Israel could become exorbitant. This may hopefully drum some sense into Washington’s policy-makers.

The relaxation of the Gaza blockade won’t greatly change ground realities—barring a minor improvement in food availability and living conditions. Israel will still control Gaza’s borders and airspace, and movement of people and goods. But as a Gazan puts it: “We don't need food or clothing; we don’t want money. We need to be free to come and go. We need to feel human. People in Gaza are like you—not from another planet.”

The relaxation’s real impact will be political. Israel will increasingly be seen as a state with roguish proclivities. This will accelerate Israel’s isolation and worldwide recognition that its occupation of Palestine is unjust, illegal and cruel. The process began with the bestial Sabra-Chatilla massacres in Palestinian refugee camps in 1982. A turning point was the first Intifadah (uprising) of the late 1980s, during which Palestinian children fought Israeli tanks with stones.

Those images transformed the world’s perception of Israel: from a tiny nation threatened by hostile Arab states, to a ruthless aggressor. The 2008 invasion of Gaza further confirmed Israel’s criminality. After the flotilla episode, Israel will be increasingly regarded as a pariah or outlaw state, which must be reined in—just as apartheid South Africa was.

UN Special Rapporteur for the Occupied Palestinian Territories Richard Falk, an eminent US jurist, whom Israel has barred from visiting Palestine, puts the issue in perspective: “In the end, the haunting question is whether the war crimes concerns raised by Israel’s behaviour in Gaza matters, and if so, how. I believe it matters greatly in what might be called “the second war”—the legitimacy war that often ends up shaping the political outcome more than battlefield results. The US won every battle in the Vietnam War and lost the war; the same with … the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. The Shah of Iran collapsed, as did the apartheid regime in South Africa, because of defeats in the legitimacy war.”

Adds Falk: “… This surfacing of criminal charges against Israel during and after its attacks on Gaza resulted in major gains on the legitimacy front for the Palestinians. The widespread popular perceptions of Israeli criminality, especially the sense of waging war against a defenceless population with modern weaponry, has prompted people around the world to propose boycotts, divestments and sanctions” (BDS).

The BDS campaign is gathering strength in many countries—but regrettably, not in South Asia. India in particular is building close relations with Israel. This is a historic blunder. New Delhi must correct course—radically and quickly. To start with, it must press for an independent external inquiry into the flotilla attack. But India won’t revise its Israel policy unless our political parties, civil society and intellectuals launch a powerful BDS campaign. This must demand a complete cessation of military purchases and joint ventures with Israel, a boycott of Israeli products, and tough sanctions.