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International Responsibility for the Flotilla Raid

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In the aftermath of Israel's violent seizure of the Free Gaza flotilla early this week, it's important to emphasize that leading elements of the international community set the circumstances which resulted in this massacre. Monday's raid -- like the 2008-9 military assault on Gaza ("Operation Cast Lead"), and like the further atrocities that almost certainly lie ahead -- are the predictable outcome of established international policy towards the Gaza Strip. "To focus on this recent tragedy alone," as the International Crisis Group (ICG) rightly argues, "is to miss the much wider and more important political lessons."

Two fundamental points of culpability stand out: first, the international campaign to isolate and exclude the elected Hamas government (now essentially confined to the Gaza Strip) from the Palestinian political process; and second, the maintenance by wealthy Western powers of warm bilateral relations with Israel despite acts of unlawful violence such as we have witnessed this week. A significant compounding factor is the free reign that Israeli spokespeople are given in the West to promote their narrative regarding Israeli attacks, even as Israel engages in deliberate and heavy-handed action to silence those in a position to contradict official claims (I'll return to this below). It is disingenuous to criticize Israeli actions without challenging the international policy framework that gives rise to them.

Since the Palestinian Authority elections of 2006, Western powers, building upon a long history of skewed engagement with Israel/Palestine, have demonstrated remarkable contempt for Palestinian rights to political self-representation. For years, the West applied pressure to disempower the PA presidency (which remained under Arafat until his death in 2004) vis-à-vis the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) and the post of prime minister. But when Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza elected a Hamas majority to the PLC, the task of the Mahmoud Abbas presidency was to turn its back on this (limited) electoral exercise. Western powers imposed sanctions on the PA, pressuring the traditional PA leadership to undermine the government. PA financial dependence had been carefully established; now Israel seized Palestinian tax revenue, the European Union and other donor states withheld budgetary support, and the US (in coordination with Egypt and Jordan) stepped up support for PA forces hostile to the elections results.

The Palestinian national unity government produced by the Mecca agreement of February 2007 was likewise targeted, and eventually fell under the pressure of international sanctions and fomenting of intra-Palestinian conflict. In a leaked document made available by the Guardian, Alvaro de Soto, UN envoy to the Middle East Peace Process from 2005-2007, recalls that "the US clearly pushed for a confrontation between Fateh and Hamas -- so much so that, a week before Mecca, the US envoy declared twice in an envoys meeting in Washington how much 'I like this violence', referring to the near-civil war that was erupting in Gaza in which civilians were being regularly killed and injured, because 'it means that other Palestinians are resisting Hamas'." In June 2007, amidst unprecedented inter-factional fighting, Hamas undertook a rapid offensive to consolidate internal military control of Gaza, arguing it was preempting coup efforts by US-allied PA forces. Since, Gaza has been under a suffocating siege. In the West Bank, targeted by broadening Israeli settlement and annexation, Western donor funds and US "security assistance" have bolstered a de facto PA administration increasingly bereft of democratic legitimacy.

US-led diplomacy has deliberately entrenched this fracturing of Palestinian politics. (Recall that under the Oslo Accords, the relationship of Palestinians in the occupied territories with the Palestinian diaspora was already severely disrupted, part of the process of what Oxford University's Karma Nabulsi calls the "de-democratization" of Palestinian politics.) The Annapolis process, launched in late 2007, exemplifies the approach. According to the Israeli interpretation of Annapolis -- which is largely in effect -- the de facto Abbas administration is required to provide Israel with the pretense of diplomatic negotiations ("uninterrupted") parallel to Israeli pursuit of its "war on terror." Abbas excludes Hamas from the PA (as a condition of Western financing), and the US trains PA forces to engage in repression in the West Bank (often mimicking Israeli raids, still executed in parallel). All this as Gaza is economically suffocated and militarily assaulted by Israeli forces at will: in security negotiations, IDF "freedom of action" throughout Palestine is persistently upheld. True to form, Abbas has refused to call off US-sponsored proximity talks with Israel despite this latest massacre.

In December 2008, just prior to Operation Cast Lead, the United Nations Security Council shamefully rubber-stamped this model with res. 1850, dealing a major blow both to UN credibility and to international law. Recall that rationalization of the sanctions imposed on the PA in 2006 hinged on three principles, often described as preconditions for Palestinian inclusion in the Palestinian political process: renunciation of violence, acceptance of past agreements, and recognition of Israel. These were incorporated early on into the platform of the so-called Quartet, which comprises the US, the EU, Russia, and elements of the UN. (Though the Quartet, which in de Soto's words basically "provides a shield for what the US and the EU do," did not technically adopt these principles as conditions.) UNSC res. 1850, passed December 16 2008, elevates and codifies these unworkable and hypocritical conditions -- applied only to Palestinians, of course -- while at the same time rubber-stamping the Annapolis process. This imposition of a framework guaranteeing Palestinian fragmentation in the face of Israeli assault ought to be a major scandal.

Israel, meanwhile, has learned that not only will it not be punished for large-scale atrocities, but massacres can sometimes serve as an opportunity to secure additional support to suffocate Palestinians. Consider Operation Cast Lead. On January 8 2009, with the aerial assault that began on December 27 having already evolved to include major ground operations, the US abstained from UNSC res. 1860 (which called for a ceasefire and easing of the Gaza siege). This effectively deprived the resolution of any force. Instead, the US let the killing drag on and then agreed upon a Memorandum of Understanding with Israel, finalized by the Bush administration on January 16 with Obama's direct endorsement. In accord with this Memorandum, the US Army Corps of Engineers has been operating in Egypt to help seal Palestinians into the impoverished Gaza ghetto. The Israeli arrogance on display this week is nurtured by such international backing.

Indeed, Israel is practicing and regularizing a model of atrocity that it is sure to continue refining: violently attack, deny the victims communications access to the outside world (barring journalists from Gaza and attacking media installations, disrupting satellite phones on the flotilla and confiscating footage), and then dispatch spokespeople internationally to whitewash the crime unopposed. In this case, the BBC reports that one cameraman on the Sfendoni, reportedly not one of the worst-hit vessels, was hit with a rifle butt in the eye; detentions have delayed access even to passenger testimonies. Meanwhile, Israeli personnel apparently sifted through all available footage before releasing carefully edited clips. Much discussion in the Israeli press (e.g., here and here) pertains to tactical improvement between military operations and this "second battlefield."

Painting elite commandos raiding an aid flotilla as victims is like beating someone to death and then trying to illicit sympathy for bruised knuckles. But the level of absurdity is a measure of the international indulgence that Israeli planners anticipate. Silencing of victims will go hand-in-hand with Israeli operations so long as Israel's spokespeople are permitted the space denied to its targets.

This week's events portend more of the same -- and likely much worse. The opening by Egypt of the Rafah crossing is a positive development, restricted as it appears to be, but is potentially quite temporary. Circumstances demand more fundamental political changes. This week's events have opened space (including in the West) to demand respect for Palestinian political self-representation, on the one hand, and tangible down-grading of relations with Israel on the other. Without sustained and mounting pressure in this direction, the situation is almost certain to deteriorate.