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Stéphane Hessel

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Gaza Flotilla: Global Citizens Must Respond Where Governments Have Failed

Posted: 06/15/10 02:09 PM ET

Israel's illegal and immoral attack on the Freedom Flotilla humanitarian aid convoy, which left at least nine dead and dozens injured, has rightfully stunned the world. The all-civilian convoy of 6 ships carried over 10,000 tons of critically-needed humanitarian aid and nearly 700 citizens from 40 countries. The Flotilla was an ambitious attempt to break the siege imposed by Israel on the 1.5 million Palestinians of the occupied Gaza strip, since 2007. Carrying distinguished parliamentarians, religious leaders, authors, journalists, a Nobel Peace Laureate, and a Holocaust survivor, the relief convoy aimed not only to provide relief supplies to Gaza; it sought to direct the international spotlight towards the humanitarian crisis imposed on Gaza's residents and the imperative to end it. There is no denying that the latter objective has succeeded, albeit with tragic consequences.

The Israeli attack on the unarmed aid convoy in international waters was "[a clear] violation of international humanitarian law, international law of the seas, and [by most interpretations] international criminal law," to use the words of Richard Falk, Professor of International Law and UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. It is a sad reality that world governments have for too long become either complicit or apathetic to Israel's crimes and fostered its culture of impunity, under a shield of unquestionable backing by the US. Its initial condemnation notwithstanding, the US government has pressured the UN Security Council members, again, to adopt ambiguous language which relieves Israel of responsibility and creates parity between aggressor and victim.

Characteristically, the Israeli government has blamed the victims of its raid for attacking the Israeli soldiers, claiming "self-defense." Prominent legal expert and Director of the Sydney Centre for International Law at Sydney Law School, Professor Ben Saul, squarely refutes Israel's claim arguing: "Legally speaking, government military forces rappelling onto a ship to illegally capture it are treated no differently than other criminals. The right of self-defense in such situations rests with the passengers on board: a person is legally entitled to resist one's own unlawful capture, abduction and detention." He adds that "if Israeli forces killed people, they may not only have infringed the human right to life, but they may also have committed serious international crimes. Under article 3 of the Rome Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Maritime Navigation of 1988, it is an international crime for any person to seize or exercise control over a ship by force, and also a crime to injure or kill any person in the process."

Despite UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon's statement calling for an end to Israel's illegal siege of Gaza, the Security Council has failed to call for an unconditional end to the blockade, allowing Israel to commit grave war crimes with impunity, as well documented in the UN Goldstone report.

The absence of meaningful action from governments to hold Israel accountable to international law leaves open one path for citizens of conscience: to take this responsibility upon themselves, as done against apartheid South Africa. Non-violent citizen-led initiatives, exemplified by the Flotilla and the various boycott and divestment campaigns around the world, present the most promising way to overcome the failure of world governments to stand up to Israel's intransigence and lawless behavior. By flagrantly attacking the aid ship, Israel has inadvertently brought unprecedented awareness and condemnation not only of its fatal siege of Gaza but also of the wider context of Israel's occupation practices in the Palestinian Territories, its denial of Palestinian refugee rights, and its apartheid policies against the indigenous, "non-Jewish" citizens of Israel.

The Freedom Flotilla brings to mind the kind of civil society solidarity initiatives which brought an end to segregation laws in the US and apartheid in South Africa, an analogy impossible to ignore. Like the apartheid regime of South Africa, Israel's reaction has been to label this non-violent act an "intentional provocation." As in the case of South Africa, the call for international solidarity, in the form of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) came from an overwhelming majority of Palestinian civil society unions and organizations in 2005, and is being embraced by citizens of conscience and social movements worldwide. The BDS initiative calls for effectively isolating Israel, its complicit business, academic and cultural institutions, as well as companies profiting from its human rights violations and illegal policies, as long as these policies continue.

I believe that the BDS initiative is a moral strategy which has demonstrated its potential for success. Most recently, German Deutsche Bank became the latest of several European financial institutions and major pension funds to divest from Israeli arms manufacturer Elbit Systems. Last week, two main Italian supermarket chains announced a boycott of produce from illegal Israeli settlements. Last month, performers Elvis Costello and Gil Scott-Heron cancelled appearances in Israel. Reminiscent of the South African anti-apartheid popular struggle, the current generation of students across university campuses is actively calling upon their administrations to adopt divestment policies.

I endorse the heartfelt words of Scottish writer Iain Banks, who in reaction to Israel's atrocious attack on the Freedom Flotilla suggested that the best way for international artists, writers and academics to "convince Israel of its moral degradation and ethical isolation" is "simply by having nothing more to do with this criminal government."

Stéphane Frédéric Hessel is a diplomat, former ambassador, French resistance fighter and BCRA agent. Born German, he obtained French nationality in 1937. He participated in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948.