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Phyllis Bennis Headshot

From Istanbul: Outrage Over a Massacre on the High Seas

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Israel has decided that it is better to be perceived as savage than as weak. In its initial attack on the boats carrying human rights activists and humanitarian aid to the besieged Gaza Strip, Israel's commandos killed at least nine human rights activists and injured perhaps as many as eighty or more. All those aboard the ships, which were attacked and seized pirate-style in international seas far beyond the legal limits of Israel's own territorial waters, were arrested and/or deported.

Hours later, during one of the first protests that rose in outrage against the assault on the boats, Israeli troops used tear gas with such force against protesters at the Qalandia crossing between Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank, that at least one international supporter, a 21-year-old American woman, was reported undergoing surgery to remove her destroyed eye. By coincidence, I am in Istanbul at the moment. In Turkey, home to most of the dead and injured among the international activists, 10,000 people here in Istanbul marched from the Israeli consulate to the city's main square, while thousands more took to the streets in Ankara, expressing outrage and demanding international accountability and immediate action to end the blockade of Gaza.

Maybe someone in the Israeli intelligence services or in the military really believed that the high profile threats that the Gaza Freedom Flotilla would "not be allowed" to reach Gaza shores would somehow convince the 700+ human rights defenders to simply give up. That they would agree to turn their 10,000 tons of humanitarian aid over to the Israeli military in the hope that the IDF, which has enforced an illegal and crippling siege against the 1.5 million Gazans for more than 3 years, would abide by their claim that they would send the aid on to Gaza... a Gaza that Israel continues to assert is not facing the humanitarian catastrophe that has been documented by the United Nations, by Amnesty International, by every Israeli and Palestinian and international human rights organization working in the region.

But anyone who knew anything about the Gaza boats knew that wasn't going to happen. No one disputed that Israel has the military power to assault and overpower the boats, to force them away from Gaza's shores and to arrest the hundreds of activists on board. Decades of uncritical U.S. support - including consistent use of the Security Council veto to protect Israel from being held accountable for its crimes in the United Nations, and most recently the Bush-initiated and Obama-implemented commitment of $30 billion in military aid to Israel - has insured that military power, nuclear and conventional, remains unchallengeable in the region and beyond. U.S. complicity in the massacre is beyond question.

No government, anywhere in the world, supported the Israeli assault. Weak responses came from some important U.S. allies, including Britain and Germany, but even the most anemic reactions, those that parroted old U.S./Israeli propaganda of the Israeli commandos' "right of self-defense" (as if special forces attacking a civilian ship in the dark of night in the middle of the Mediterranean in international waters somehow have the same rights as the civilian passengers on their target ship) bemoaned the casualties and called for some kind of international investigation.

Questions do remain, however, regarding how other countries are responding. Turkey took the lead, with its government calling the attack a "massacre" and Prime Minister Erdogan referring to it as "state terrorism." Ankara imposed a series of appropriately severe measures, including withdrawing Turkey's ambassador from Tel Aviv, cancelling planned Turkish-Israeli military exercises, and indicating that the attack (most of whose victims were Turks) may lead to "irreparable" damage to the once-close Turkey-Israel relationship. Arab states, responding to outrage in the street, were predictably harsh. Perhaps more significantly in terms of a real diplomatic shift that may be afoot in the wake of the attack, the European Union and a number of European governments issued harsh condemnations.

The United Nations Security Council failed to condemn the Israeli attack, pressured by U.S. opposition. A powerful Council resolution would have not only condemned the attack but created a powerful international investigation, leading directly to an International Criminal Court referral to hold Israeli political and military officials accountable. There were efforts towards such a goal; Turkey's ambassador called for condemning the attack "in the strongest terms" and called for an "independent international investigation." Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu called the attack "banditry and piracy" on the high seas, and said that the dead activists were victims of "murder conducted by a state." But the language was qualitatively weakened under U.S. pressure, and no resolution was passed at all. Instead, the Council issued a presidential statement, an act that does not carry the force of law. The statement simply condemns "those acts" resulting in deaths, without identifying Israeli responsibility. And crucially, it failed to hold Israel accountable by creating an immediate international, UN-controlled investigation, instead calling politely for an investigation "conforming to international standards" without even stating who should conduct such an investigation.

While several Council members stated their belief that the statement did refer to a UN-run investigation, and urged Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon to initiate the process, it remains far from clear that the vague language commits the UN to anything at all. The Council decision was another indication that so far, the Obama administration remains committed to protecting Israel from being held accountable for its war crimes and other violations. That defense of Israel remains far stronger than any commitment to international law, human rights and the principle of accountability.

The U.S. on its own, facing the possibility of global anger at its refusal to hold Israel accountable for the massacre of the boats and for its continual refusal (through use or threat of a veto) even to stand aside and allow the rest of the world to impose consequences, still refused to condemn the attack. In the first 24 hours, the Obama administration limited itself to expressions of concern and regret for the loss of life, and a polite request to Israel for "clarifications" regarding the event. Clarifications? Really?

Israel itself, having publicly anticipated a PR disaster following its planned assault, turned the blame on the victims. During weeks of open threats, Tel Aviv had announced that journalists would be allowed onto their naval attack ships to counteract the expected bad press resulting from film of the assault that would be produced by the numerous journalists - from al-Jazeera producers to a host of bloggers - already on board the ships of the humanitarian flotilla. After the attack, Israel's domestic and international spin-shops went into high gear, focusing on the commandos alleged "right of self-defense" - as if heavily armed special forces jumping from hovering helicopters to seize a civilian ship in international waters, reportedly firing as they hit the deck, have any right of "self-defense."

Israel is now claiming a new international law, invented just for this purpose: the preventive "right" to capture any naval vessel in international waters if the ship was about to violate a blockade - in this case, the illegal, Geneva Convention-violating unilaterally imposed (though U.S.-backed) Israeli siege of 1.5 million Gazan civilians. That one just about matches George Bush's claim of a preventive "right" to attack Iraq in 2003 because Baghdad might someday create weapons the U.S. might not like and might use them to threaten some country the U.S. does like...even if they didn't really have any WMDs at all and the U.S. knew it all along.

The human toll has been very high in these last days, for the international civil society activists and movements who continue to fight for human rights and international law for Palestinians. The human cost may grow higher still, as we still don't know the extent of the injured and the numbers (let alone the names) of the dead. The costs are high. They remain high as well, on a daily basis, for the millions of Palestinians, living besieged in the open-air prison that is the Gaza Strip, living under military occupation throughout the West Bank and Arab East Jerusalem, living as stateless refugees and longtime exiles in the Middle East and around the world.

But it may be that the horrors of the Flotilla Massacre will lead to some serious changes. Already the diplomatic realities are shifting. Israel's war against Gaza last year lead to a wide-spread transformation of public discourse across the world, but most powerfully in the U.S. The massacre of international human rights activists at sea is likely to have similar or even more powerful results at the level of public discourse, but perhaps as well at the level of international diplomacy and shifts in power.

The Obama administration so far is protecting Israel from accountability. But the backlash from the massacre meant, among other things, that Netanyahu had to cancel his White House meeting this week - the tete-a-tete with Obama designed to celebrate the renewal of strong ties after putting the settlement-related bickering behind them. The UN Security Council didn't pass a strong resolution, but the anger expressed by virtually every member state, including U.S. allies, was unusually harsh. Governments - especially of the 32 countries whose nationals were among the activists now dead or injured or held incommunicado in Israeli detention camps - face powerful pressure from outraged citizens, and the cost of defending Israel is rising. Every NATO country, except for the U.S., is acknowledging in some form that a civilian ship of NATO partner Turkey has been wantonly attacked; the pressure to redefine NATO's till-now cozy relationship with Israel will rise. Turkey, NATO's only Muslim-majority country, is breaking its ties with Tel Aviv, and that break may be permanent.

International pressure currently led by civil society, through the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, will continue, but increasingly governments will show new willingness to hold Israel accountable. Civil society has pressured national judicial systems to use the principles of universal jurisdiction to bring accused Israeli war criminals to justice. Palestinian and global civil society have taken the lead with BDS because governments and the United Nations failed to provide protection for the Palestinian people. Civil society activists, from around the world and from inside Palestine, have paid in blood for that commitment. Perhaps the Flotilla Massacre will change that equation.

For now, we mourn for our friends and colleagues, we continue to demand information on the victims and demand that the surviving activists and their ships with all their humanitarian cargo be immediately released so they can join the rest of the Flotilla already underway and continue to Gaza.

And as we mourn, our full demands must be for the immediate lifting of the criminal blockade of Gaza - the end of the blockade, not simply allowing a few additional items in under Israeli control. And then we must demand full international accountability, including criminal liability, for the Israeli officials, both political leaders and military commanders, who are responsible for the Flotilla Massacre. The United Nations, the International Criminal Court, and every national government should be prepared to investigate and to arrest those responsible.