Provocation in the Attack on the Gaza Aid Flotilla

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Provocation in the Attack
on the Gaza Aid Flotilla
by Anne Sherrod
Canada and the U.S. have failed to condemn the attack by Israel on the Mavi Marmara, saying that they need first to learn exactly what happened on board the ship.  The issue of provocation has become a centre of focus.  There is no doubt that the Israeli commandos killed at least nine (some say sixteen) passengers; but Israel’s main justification is that the passengers provoked the violence by beating the soldiers.

In my view, the question of provocation begins a few frames back from when the commandos boarded the ship.  For instance, if Israel wanted to stop the flotilla, it should have done so in the light of day with independent observers present.  To send heavily armed commandos on board a ship of civilians by surprise, in the dark of night, nearly a couple of hundred kilometers out to sea where there were no independent witnesses, speaks very poorly of Israel.  It suggests an intent to do things that could later be denied and blamed on the passengers.

To confiscate the film and cameras of the passengers, and put them all in prison for three days while foisting on the world a video that only shows passengers beating soldiers (no representation of the shootings at all) only adds to this impression. The question of who provoked whom cannot be settled by a film that shows neither the beginning nor the end of the events; and the glaring attempt to control the public perception suggests that Israel had plenty to hide.

Now, as the passengers start to make their statements, Israel is being faced with a rising tide of testimony that the deadly shootings started before the commandos landed on the ship. So one is forced to wonder if the men wielding the pipes in the film released by the Israelis were trying to stop the soldiers from killing any more people.  

On June 3 CBC TV interviewed Kevin Neish, a Canadian activist who was on the aid ship when it was attacked. When Neish was pointing out that the commandos had fired guns on a ship with old people, women and a child onboard, commentator Carole MacNeil inserted, “But you knew what was coming, you knew…” In such a view, the activists provoked the attack simply because they were there, intending to try to break Israeli’s blockade.

It is certain that many on board knew there was a risk involved, but they probably thought there was safety in numbers and in the many highly credible people on flotilla.  I can’t imagine that anyone expects to be shot four or five times in the head and chest for trying to deliver humanitarian aid to suffering civilians, unless they are planning on going to Somalia or Congo, or Rwanda during the genocide. Especially not with 600+ people watching.  Even war lords with trigger-happy troops in many a dysfunctional country torn by civil war manage to ensure a safe space around the people who bring humanitarian aid to civilians.  

Yet the fact is that MacNeil’s remark represents one kind of response that typically arises in such situations. Even the impeccably nonviolent protesters led by Martin Luther King were beaten, had their organs damaged by fire hoses or dogs turned on them, or were arrested and jailed while some few were tortured or murdered.  And even then, there were both white and black people who thought that the protesters brought it on themselves.  After all, it was said, they were flouting the state laws. They were making trouble. Weren’t they provoking violence that otherwise would not have occurred if they would have stayed at home?

Today, those protesters are considered by many to be national heroes and heroines.  Today, nearly everyone sees that they were rebelling from another kind of injury that had been vastly more devastating than the physical injuries that many endured during the protests. It included economic slavery, forced obeisance, and psychological torture for millions of people year after year, along with regular doses of White Supremacist violence to intimidate and coerce those millions into silence.

As Kevin Neish tried to explain to MacNeil, the risk of tragic consequences to themselves had to be weighed against the actual and ongoing injury and deaths caused by Israel’s blockade of Gaza. According to Israel, the blockade is all about stopping weapons shipments to Hamas.  But this does not tell us why many foods, medical supplies, and construction materials to rebuild houses destroyed by Israeli bombs were being prevented from entering Gaza.  

According to Amnesty International, 1.4 million Palestinians are trapped in an area of land just 40 kilometres long and 9.5 kilometres wide. Four out of five are dependent upon humanitarian aid. More than 60% of households are “food insecure”.  People have died for lack of medical aid.

On 16 November 2009, a United Nations report cited a “water, sanitation and environmental crisis in Gaza … severely impaired … economic, social and cultural rights, as well as civil and political rights,” as well as violent abuse of Palestinian children by the Israeli military.  It said at least 194 persons had been forcibly displaced by having their homes demolished to make room for Israeli settlements, and there were “conservative estimates” of more than 1,500 pending demolition orders in East Jerusalem. The United Nations called for an end to the blockade.

In December of 2009, a United Nations independent expert, Richard Falk, stated that “The ordeal of the 1.5 million residents of Gaza affected by the Israeli blockade, over half of whom are children, has been allowed to continue without any formal objection by governments and at the UN.” He called for world nations to threaten sanctions against Israel to break the blockade.  

Slowly strangling 1.5 million people of their means of survival, their contact with the outside world, and their very homes and land is a huge provocation to people in the world who have a conscience.  People of my parents’ generation who fought World War II spent the rest of their lives shaking their heads in disbelief that the German people could have tolerated, much less perpetrated, the abuse and murder of millions of Jews. This amounted to an expectation that citizens, soldiers and officers should have risked their lives to defend the Jews.

Now that most of the history books have been written, it is widely believed that Britain, the U.S. and Canada contributed to this tragedy by failing to confront Hitler long before the war started.  This included not only a failure to stop the aggressive takeover of other nations, but also an indifference to the rising tide of persecution against the Jews.  Winston Churchill concluded that “the malice of the wicked was reinforced by the weakness of the virtuous.”

Many in my generation hope to do better than that. Today, with the blockade of Gaza, we are faced with years and years of cowardice on the part of the very nations that gave us the Nuremberg Principles.  Choking on the violence done to Israelis by Hamas, and swallowing the camel of decades of grossly brutal attacks by Israel that have killed and displaced millions of Palestinians while taking over their land and destroying their homes is not principles, it’s collusion.

Thank goodness for the human race that, in 2010, once again the world is witness to a large movement of citizens stepping forward with the moral dignity of human conscience to exercise their rights and responsibilities under international law in a peaceful, nonviolent way.  With Iran now declaring its intent to break the blockade of Gaza, more people than ever may come to appreciate the Freedom Flotillas.  

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