What options exist for Netanyahu next time on the high seas?
Richard Lightbown argues that whatever Israel does when the Mavi Marmara sets sail for Gaza on the first anniversary of the murder of aid workers by Israeli commandos aboard the same ship, the movement to break the illegal siege of Gaza “is not going to be frightened off. It is not going to go away. It is not going to wither and die."
On 26 December thousands turned out in Istanbul to welcome the Mavi Marmara back to the port. A large banner on the starboard side featured photos of the nine martyrs from the Israeli raid. The ship had spent more than four months in Iskenderun where forensic experts had checked out the bullet holes that Israeli operatives had filled and painted over. Blood-stained clothing and heaps of ransacked baggage have been cleared away. No doubt the railings cut by activists for the makeshift defence of the ship have now been replaced, and perhaps the six kitchens have been restocked with knives and utensils to replace those taken to display to the world’s media as proof of a premeditated “lynch” of Israel’s well-equipped and highly-trained elite special forces.
Israel’s continuing strangulation of Gaza
Already it has been announced that the ship is to leave on the first anniversary of the raid on 31 May 2011 in a renewed attempt to break the blockade. The need in Gaza remains acute. The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights reported on 18 October that Israel maintains a total ban on raw materials and construction materials necessary for rebuilding. (It is still unclear whether the 3,500 tons of cement from the flotilla was ever allowed to reach Gaza.) On 9 July the same non-governmental organization had stated that 86,000 homes and 900,000 tons of concrete were needed to make good the damage from Operation Cast Lead and provide for population growth.
Gisha, an Israeli organization that challenges restrictions on Palestinian movement, reported on 21 December that bureaucratic delays to permits for construction materials had thwarted international projects to build schools, hospitals and infrastructure, while projects administered by the Hamas government were using materials entering through the tunnels from the Egyptian border. In the five months between July and December 744 truckloads of cement, gravel and steel had entered the Strip via the Israeli crossings, compared with 900 tons (equivalent to 36 truckloads) which pass each day through the 30-40 tunnels intended for construction materials.
Despite Israel’s well publicised easing of the blockade, the number of trucks allowed into Gaza in October was on average only 34 per cent of pre-June 2007 levels. The Palestinian Trade Centre reported on 14 October that fuel imports were markedly below the estimated needs. Cooking gas was particularly affected since it cannot be piped through the tunnels from Egypt. Exports allowed out of Gaza between January and September this year amounted to a mere 80 truckloads, stifling any meaningful recovery of the economy.
The Turkish government has made no objection so far to the announcement from the humanitarian organization IHH to make a renewed challenge of the illegal Israeli blockade. And why should it? As Huwaida Arraf explained at the Free Gaza press conference in Rome on 13 December:
Breaking the siege of Gaza an obligation
The International Committee of the Red Cross has said that Israel’s closure of Gaza is a violation of international law. States have an obligation to end this violation of international law. Therefore, states have an obligation not to stop us, to let us go to Gaza.
“Us” in this case refers to organizations from the USA, Canada, Norway, Holland, UK, Italy, France, Spain, Ireland, Malaysia and Turkey. This is a far cry from two tiny vessels and 42 activists that began this snowball in 2008. Nothing it would seem is going to stop this movement from sailing for Gaza. But what will Israel do this time?
Diplomatic pressure and sabotage
There will no doubt be diplomatic pressure. The Republic of Cyprus can be expected to again refuse access to the flotilla, and no doubt the US administration will find some spurious reason to disapprove of the operation. Maybe the shambles that is the stalled peace process will be wheeled out once more as an excuse for disapproving of solidarity with the Palestinian’s claim for justice and human rights. We can expect at least three Nobel peace laureates to disgrace themselves and to side with injustice again.
The organizers will know to watch their vessels closely for sabotage. Both of the cabin cruisers suffered steering faults on the way to the rendezvous for the last flotilla and only managed to reach harbour with difficulty. One of them, the Challenger II, also had a problem with the bilge pump, and did not manage to set sail for Gaza. Sabotage to the Rachel Corrie’s propeller and exhaust also resulted in delays and repairs costing GBP 37,000.
Mossad can also be expected to get at least one spy onto the flotilla this time. Advance information of the emergency channel on the Mavi Marmara would have been a major help to the Israeli military in its attempt to control media sources during the last raid. The Israeli government was seriously embarrassed by news headlines reporting 16 dead at 0600 GMT on 31 May and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs will be keen to avoid a repeat of this negative public relations. Both sides will have learnt lessons from their experiences last time and there will be a keen battle of wits to control information sources this time around. This time too major media outlets may even decide to come to the party since the story is becoming too big to bury. (For the sake of journalistic integrity, it is to be hoped that the BBC will not choose to send Jane Corbin. However the presence of at least one BBC journalist on board may render it impossible for the corporation to fabricate another propaganda piece to match Panorama’s “Death on the Med”.)
The Free Gaza Movement is again declaring its intention to carry out non-violent resistance against any illegal assault. The IHH president, Bülent Yildirim, appears unrepentant for his previous statements, so a forceful defence of the Mavi Marmara will again be a possibility in the event of an Israeli attack. Israel will know this and will be evaluating the choices. These appear to be more limited this time. The diplomatic fallout with Turkey has still not cleared and the Turkish government remains steadfast in its demand for an apology from Israel.
Legal actions are also underway in various European courts and in the International Court of Justice for compensation and criminal prosecution. The threat of legal action has already prevented Defence Minister Ehud Barak and Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor from travelling to Europe since the raid. The subject of “delegitimisation” was mentioned several times by witnesses to the Turkel Commission, to the extent that maybe even Binyamin Netanyahu will be starting to see a connection between Israel’s criminal behaviour and the way its citizens are welcomed overseas (maybe!).
Netanyahu’s first choice is to let the flotilla pass, and by doing so open up a seaway to Gaza for importing desperately needed construction materials, open up the export market which will stimulate the economy, allow Gazans their human right to travel, and allow the free passage of world citizenry into the enclave to see first-hand Israeli snipers attacking Gazan farmers and gunboats attacking fishermen. In effect this will begin the de-occupation of Gaza. (And why does Israel insist on occupying Gaza?)
His second option is to attack, risk a major military stand-off with Turkey (to the great embarrassment of NATO) and prove to the world that the first attack was not an error of judgement. This will do wonders for the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement and might even kick-start it in North America.
Alternatively, can the Israeli commandos attack it this time without wholesale bloodletting? Clambering up the stern from Zodiacs seems an impossible task when faced with defenders wearing gas masks (from the ship’s fire-fighting equipment) and using fire hoses. This proven defence will be difficult to overcome without the use of extreme violence. Or will the navy chief be willing to authorize live fire from helicopters before boarding on a second occasion, knowing that this has already been declared an unlawful act contrary to the Fourth Geneva Convention by the UN Human Rights Council Fact-Finding Mission (and knowing that he can personally be held criminally responsible)? If not, what other options does he have available to seize the top deck against persons determined to exercise their legal right of defence (and who know what strategy was employed on the previous occasion)?
The compromise might be to try to disable the ships. This is widely seen as a high risk strategy. Israel’s chief of the General, Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, told Turkel that there were no safe options to boarding, and commentators have questioned the safety of disabling a ship on the high seas that is carrying more than 600 civilians. If a bungled attempt causes the ship to sink or founder with serious loss of life Israel could become a pariah state overnight and the UN might be forced to oversee the sea route into Gaza.
An unstoppable force seems to have been unleashed here. As on the Indian subcontinent, in southern Africa and in the American south, this movement for civil rights is not going to be frightened off. It is not going to go away. It is not going to wither and die. That the vast majority of Israeli citizens were misguided enough to have supported the terrorism against the last flotilla only underlines the corrupting influence on Israeli society of the illegal occupation of Palestinian lands.
For Israel to escape its internal decay and destruction it has to give up its role of occupying power and a defining moment in its history now approaches. If not with this flotilla, then with the next or the one after. At some stage soon, the unstoppable force will engulf the blockade. The sooner that happens the better it will be for Israel, the better for the opportunities for peace in the Middle East and the better for the tragic victims in Gaza for whom freedom and justice have been denied for far too long.