Let's step back and take a look at the situation. First, remember that this international firestorm is occurring during the same news cycle when 80 Ahmadi Muslims were killed by multiple terrorist bombs in two mosques in Lahore, Pakistan. Did you hear a word about it? Of course not. Why do I make the point? To show that there is something particularly telegenic and dramatic about the drama of the Palestinians and the Israelis. It captures peoples imaginations in a way that no other havoc does. Some supporters of Israel think there is an obsession with Israel that borders on anti-Semitism. Why single out Israel when there are so many other tragedies and humanitarian crises in the world? they ask. I think the answer is complicated, but I also believe that the question is valid, and an honest answer would be quite revealing. But not in today's blog.
As with all the stories in the Arab-Israeli conflict, it is hard to know where the story begins; it certainly is impossible to know where it will end. If I choose to begin the story with the accession of the Islamist-nationalist Hamas organization to power in Gaza in early 2006, I set aside an enormous pre-history which precedes that moment. If I choose to start the story with the unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in the summer of 2005, I still need to ask the reader to put blinkers on to ignore all the rest. If I begin the story in December of 1987, at the outbreak of the first intifada, and the emergence in January 1988 of a new group called the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas), I will have to ask the reader to ignore all that preceded this moment. If I start the story in 1967, with the Israeli acquisition of the Gaza Strip, I ask you to ignore all that comes before. If I start the story in 1947, with the flight of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians down the coast to Gaza, I ask you dear reader to ignore everything else that led to that moment. I always tell my students that where a narrator of the Arab-Israeli conflict begins his narrative will tell you a great deal about the prejudices and leanings of the narrator.
To make this simple, I am going to start with the June 2007 Israeli decision to blockade the Gaza Strip, a blockade on materiel that is also (periodically) enforced by the Egyptian regime on its long land border with Gaza. The Israeli decision to blockade Gaza came after a brutal civil war in which Hamas militants wiped away the competing forces of Fatah, the secular arm of Palestinian nationalism now holed up in the West Bank. The blockade came at a time when tensions between Gaza and Israel were at (for what was then) an all-time high: daily rocket salvos flying into southern Israel; Israeli troops surrounding the Strip; a year earlier an Israeli soldier was kidnapped on the border. The idea of the Israelis and Egyptians was to prevent military equipment from reaching the Strip; a second goal was to make the economic conditions of Gaza so miserable (they already were awful even before this blockade was ramped up) that the residents of Gaza would reject Hamas leadership. This is an old and worn (and inhumane) tactic that has often been used across the decades by Israeli strategic planners -- put pressure (in the form of reprisal raids, economic restrictions, security checks, and other daily humiliations) on the target general population in order to encourage the general population to renounce and turn away from the hated regime bringing on all this repression and havoc. Trouble is, sometimes the general population does not connect the dots the way Israeli leaders hope. And the embargo is far from hermetic; Israel supplies electricity to Gaza, Israel supplies water; the Israeli sheqel is still the functional currency of Gaza. The Gaza Strip and Israel are even now inextricably tied one to the other.
The Israelis keep using this tactic, and can only point to a less than .500 result. So far, the tactic has failed in Gaza, even as the blockade tightened in the aftermath of the full-scale military operation against Hamas in December 2008-January 2009. During Operation Cast Lead the Israel Defense Forces set the economy of Gaza back another dozen years (commonly referred to as "de-development"), and then produced a list of materiel (including concrete & coriander) that cannot be imported into Gaza. In essence, Israeli authorities were trying to set the caloric intake of Gazans in an attempt to cause Gazans to turn against Hamas. It didn't work, and it is a humanitarian crisis, created by two successive Israeli governments who cannot fathom a different way of dealing with Hamastan.
Aluf Benn of Haaretz has it right today when he writes that Israel should simply end its relationship with Gaza:
The attempt to control Gaza from outside, via its residents' diet and shopping lists, casts a heavy moral stain on Israel and increases its international isolation. Every Israeli should be ashamed of the list of goods prepared by the Defense Ministry, which allows cinnamon and plastic buckets into Gaza, but not houseplants and coriander. It's time to find more important things for our officers and bureaucrats to do than update lists.So now comes the boats! A vast array of organizations, both outside and inside Israel, are committed to the conviction that the blockade of Gaza is inhumane and unlawful. The Free Gaza Movement has been organizing sea-faring challenges to the Israeli naval blockade since 2008, with varying outcomes. Sometimes the Israeli Navy allowed boats through; sometimes there were collisions at sea; sometimes ships turned back. With the new flotilla on its way, the leaders of Israel decided to treat this new effort to run the naval blockade as a terrorist threat, and prepared a military commando raid for the biggest of the 6 ships in the flotilla.
On May 31 there was a mini-intifada on the high seas. It was in miniature an exact replica of the first days of the intifada in 1987, when television stations around the world broadcast pictures of IDF soldiers shooting live ammunition at youthful Gazans burning tires, throwing rocks, and casting slingshots. Israel lost a great deal of international stature during that first intifada, and will face similar problems from this current confrontation. Armed with the traditional hand-to-hand and symbolic weaponry of the first intifada -- iron rods, knives, slingshots and marbles -- a core of 50-100 passengers on the Mivi Marmara were prepared for "either martyrdom or Gaza" (as one passenger told an al-Jazeera correspondent). On the Israeli side, a thoroughly misinformed military leadership sent heavily armed soldiers into a potential disaster-in-the-making. While the Israeli tactic of using overpowering and intimidating force worked on 5 of the 6 ships in the flotilla, on the Mivi Marmara it all went sour. Why would the Israeli planners of this operation, including the now-disgraced Minister of Defense Ehud Barak (known in international circles ironically as the most flexible Israeli PM in recent history) not have known more of who was on board the Mivi Marmara? After all, Israeli intelligence monitors al-Jazeera Arabic and the Turkish news channels, and anyone could have seen what the mood on this ship was. Why drop soldiers at night (without the cover of sufficient smoke grenades or concussion grenades) onto a ship which had people waiting for just such an occurrence? Why not simply jam the propellers and tow the ship to Ashdod? The Israelis had completely blocked the electronic signal spectrum to and from the ship -- there would have been no ongoing international reporting of that kind of tugging operation. With Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu abroad, (back in December 1987 Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin was abroad for the first few days -- when he returned he announced "we will break their bones"), the worst possible plan was set in motion, with the deserving international outrage now pouring forth. There is a reasonable Internet-based theory floating about that it was the Obama White House that cancelled Netanyahu's scheduled visit and not the other way around -- as soon as the details of the raid became known, the story has it that the White House understood it could not be playing host to the Israeli Prime Minister during the flotilla fiasco news cycle.
So now the next question is: should there be an international investigation, as is being demanded by the UN, and is being hinted at by the Obama White House? And I have to say that from my perspective -- this Netanyahu government shows every sign of digging in, and may be incapable of investigating itself. There was a time, back during the 1970's and 1980's, where it seemed that Israeli democracy could investigate itself. Two major governmental commissions led to sweeping changes in the Israeli military and governing structures. Even the defanged 2007 Winograd Commission (which investigated the circumstances and decision-making of the June 2006 Second Lebanon War) was a thorough and revealing investigation, though then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert refused to allow an independent judicial commission. But something in my guts tells me that the Netanyahu government has decided that "once a Goldstone, always a Goldstone" -- there can be no trust of an international investigation, because Netanyahu perceives an international poisoning of the well when it comes to Israel. In Netanyahu's view, to submit his political allies (in his weak coalition government) and his military command to international investigators for questioning is an abdication of national sovereignty. The world is saying: "Israel, we do not trust you any longer to mend your own problems." Netanyahu's likely reply: "Fuck you." Is there a chance that a calmer, more reasonable tone might prevail in the inner workings of the Israeli cabinet? Can a respectable and independent domestic judicial commission of inquiry be empowered to look into the failings of this current government?
Watch what happens to the MV Rachel Corrie to get an answer. We'll check back in a couple of days.