by Patricia DeGennaro
Israel’s May 31, 2010 attack on the Freedom Flotilla in international waters garnered nothing more than global condemnation. The assault on six ships with approximately 700 activists carrying 10,000 tons of aid to the besieged Gaza strip is a shocking reminder that the Israeli government feels that the only way to continue the Palestinian occupation is with overwhelming military force.
After the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993 a brief hope existed that Israel and an independent Palestine could coexist peacefully. The reality on the ground, however, quickly extinguished any optimism. Mutual recognition appeared to do little good and casualties on both sides continued to accumulate. The beginning of the second intifada in 2000 and the growing strength of the Islamic and more radical Hamas led to more Israeli casualties. But the numbers continue to be lopsided and far more Palestinians have been killed.
Last month’s deadly raid is not the only time the Israeli military has used excessive force toward peace activists. Rachel Corrie, who the last flotilla was named after, was a peace activist bulldozed by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) standing in front of a home protesting a massive housing demolition. One of her colleagues, a young British photography student, was shot in the head by an IDF sniper for taking photos of the atrocities.
Corrie often said that she was witnessing the “systematic destruction of a people’s ability to survive.” She was convinced that the government at the time, led by Ariel Sharon, did not care about its own country’s safety let alone that of the Palestinians. A ‘man of peace,’ as US President Bush called him, would never make such a conscious effort to perpetuate the ongoing, and quite disturbing, violence while disregarding the clear imbalance of power.
During her short time in Gaza, Corrie witnessed children shot in front of her by IDF soldiers. Houses were bulldozed daily and businesses and water resources were destroyed. She personally saw the rounding up of over a hundred farmers made to huddle together while IDF snipers shot around them in the name of containment.
Since Rachel Corrie’s death in 2003, the situation in Gaza has only gotten worse. This narrow strip of land – bordering Israel, Egypt, and the Mediterranean Sea - has been cordoned off by Israel and Egypt since 2007 after the 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections set off a series of violent clashes between Hamas and rival party Fatah. Israel responded with the blockade declaring Gaza a “hostile territory” and deeming the blockade necessary to prevent weapons supplies from reaching Hamas.
Hamas declared an end to the violence and imposed a cease-fire in 2007 with the understanding that the blockade would be lifted. A year later the cease-fire was broken because the barrier remained. Rockets were fired from Gaza and Israel responded. These events escalated into the 2008-2009 bombardment of the Gaza Strip where nearly 800 Palestinians not taking part in the hostilities were killed.
Unfortunately, the IDF did nothing but increase the popularity of Hamas while continuing to further punish Gaza’s 1.5 million residents. Today, Palestinians in Gaza live on less than $1 a day and unemployment is at 45%. The war left 85% of the people dependent on humanitarian assistance. Until the attack on the Freedom Flotilla, it seemed as if the world was ignoring Gaza’s desperate plight.
The mission of the Freedom Flotilla, organized by the Free Gaza Movement, was well publicized. It was reported that the Israeli government informed the group that they would escort the ships to the Israeli port and deliver the supplies to Gaza themselves. The offer was declined for two reasons. First, Israel has excessive restrictions on what may enter Gaza and often much of the aid does not get delivered. (Israel blames Hamas for not distributing the aid.) Thus, the organizers wanted to deliver the goods themselves. Second, allowing the Israelis to deliver the aid would deliberately undermine the mission of bringing attention to the continued blockade.
All said, it is true the organizers of these humanitarian aid ships, which included support from over twenty countries, intended to bring attention to the naval blockade preventing aid to Gaza by sea. It is doubtful, however, that anyone expected such a deliberate and disproportionate act of force. Even former Israeli Knesset member, Uri Avnery, called it "a warlike attack against aid ships and deadly shooting at peace and humanitarian aid activists." He added, "It is a crazy thing that only a government that crossed all red lines can do." Perhaps Israel forgot that its military is the third strongest in the world.
Storming a ship full of humanitarian activists in international waters, taking the passengers hostage and forcing them to say they entered a country illegally, as reported by Al Jazeera correspondent Jamal El Shayyal who was on the ship, is truly pushing the envelope. The attack resulted in nine civilian deaths and several injured. Condemnation of the act was global for good reason. Violence is not the answer.
When I think of moving away from violence, individuals like the Dalai Lama, Mahatma Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela come to mind. Each preaches passive resistance. None believe that violence, military or otherwise, can provoke anything but a negative reaction. Peaceful engagement has worked in some of the most oppressive circumstances and can work for this conflict.
Having been to Israel I know this is possible. There are many Israelis who would like to stop the occupation that continues to exist in East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza. Israel is a strong nation. It has one of highest per capita incomes in the world; and, unless it self-implodes, it is not going anywhere. It is time for the government to join these Israelis and proclaim an end to violence and destruction.
Israel did escort the last of the six ships safely and peacefully to the port of Ashdad. The goods were unloaded and the inspection done. Christopher Gunness, of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, stood close by with inspectors and Egypt finally opened the Rafa entrance on their side.
Unfortunately it took nine lives for the flotilla’s mission to be successful. The world’s attention is now on Israel’s indefensible blockade. The Israeli and US policy to allow this continued isolation of a people is reprehensible. The barrier around Gaza must be opened straight away. Robust engagement of all parties to work toward mutual recognition, respect, and freedom must begin. There is no time like the present for Israel to move beyond war. And, with all eyes on them, there is no other way.
About the Author
Patricia DeGennaro is a professor, writer, analyst and consultant based in New York City. Patricia serves as a Senior Fellow at the World Policy Institute, Senior Research Fellow for the Center for the Study of Democracy at Queens University in Canada and an Adjunct Assistant Professor at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs. She also guest lecturers at several universities including the US Military Academy at West Point. She holds an MPA in International Security and Conflict Resolution from Harvard University and an MBA from George Washington University.