The Israeli raid on the Gaza aid flotilla is a wake-up call for the international community. The incident, however, is not about whether delivering humanitarian aid to Gaza is justified or whether Israel has the right to prevent ships from landing in Gaza's ports, or about the legality of imposing a blockade.
It is about occupation.
Occupation is regulated by international humanitarian conventions which call on the occupying power to maintain public health standards, access to medical care, and the provision of food for the population. Israel, along with 120 other states, signed on to the Geneva Conventions which dictates such standards. They should be applied not because of international pressures, but because it is legally and morally right. Under no circumstances should these values be compromised.
Israel has skirted this issue by declaring Gaza as no longer occupied when Israeli troops and settlers withdrew in 2005.
However, the rest of the world disagrees. The United States still considers Gaza occupied territory. In April 2010, the CIA World Factbook stated that despite the withdrawal, "The West Bank and Gaza Strip are Israeli-occupied with current status subject to the Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement - permanent status to be determined through further negotiation." The European Union still refers to Gaza as occupied. The International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations do as well.
Baring this issue raises the fear that criticizing Israel may weaken an important ally in the face of legitimate extremist and national threats.
However, at the end of the day, the basic question that needs to be asked is: Do values matter? Or are we better off protecting short-term interests?
For generations, the United States has spoken in terms of supporting the values of human rights, democracy, free expression and rule of law. President Obama reinforced those ideals in his landmark speech to the Muslim world in Cairo in 2009, and again last week in his administration's new National Security Strategy, emphasizing that they are not just American values, but universal values. And they are not just ideals, but are also enshrined in conventions and declarations that almost every state in the world is signatory.
The values of democracy, rights, and free expression are routinely curtailed by dictators, justified by serving the short-term interests of maintaining public order or protecting national unity or safeguarding national security.
Such an approach should not be taken by the United States in its relations with either Israel or the Arab world. As expressed in the Strategy, "we must pursue a rules-based international system that can advance our own interests by serving mutual interests." The consistency of approach is paramount for its legitimacy -- this is no truer in the Middle East than any place in the world.
The killing of nine and detainment and deportation of more than 700, including a former American ambassador and European parliamentarian, shines a spotlight on the humanitarian side of the now 34-year occupation of Gaza. The humanitarian laws that dictate what is expected in administering occupied territory must be respected. The depravations of the 1.6 million residents of Gaza caused by the Israel-imposed blockade, as well as the resulting 40% unemployment and poverty rates that are among the worst in the world, should be condemned. Such conditions cannot be accepted for a people under occupation, as they shouldn't be accepted under a despotic leader.
By expecting our allies to uphold basic humanitarian standards even in the toughest of times, we can maintain our moral compass with states that deliver worse to their own people as a matter of course.