Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Israel's Attack on Aid Flotilla


Maryam Sakeenah

Israeli journalist Sima Kadmon, concerned over recent events that caused an outpouring of rage and condemnation against Israel the world over (almost), reminisced of a time when her country was ‘a bit less righteous, but a bit more wise’. She held that Israel had been ‘unwise’ in attacking the aid flotilla with its ‘pro Palestine’ peace activists; unwise for not accurately predicting and calibrating its response to the scale of the outrage it provoked. She may have paraphrased the ancient Israeli dictum most aptly to the occasion, but she is not unusual in her perception. Among the Israeli writers who ventured to be critical of the attack, many expressed disapprobation on account of the lack of caution, the stupidity of the move as it failed to gauge the overwhelming responses it could generate the world over. Ben Kaspit thought it important to clarify before expressing his resentment against the unwise move, “First of all, let it be clear: We are on the right side in this story.”
Kadmon‘s comment is interesting and reflective of the mindset that prioritizes things on the basis of expediency, puts interest before rightness or wrongness_ a mindset only too rampant in the kind of world ours is. I like her choice of words... ‘less righteous’ and ‘wiser.’ Lesser righteousness, it implies, is directly proportional to wisdom_ the only wisdom known by the world out there, of course, being maximization of interests; ‘ínterests’ in turn, are defined by whatever accentuates national power and international clout. ‘All do good who work towards that end’_ making sure a lot of suspicion is not aroused for one’s motives, and rhetoric provides effective cover.
At times, however, the rhetoric too can do little to hide the crudeness, the brazenness, the bad taste. The official Israeli statement after the tragedy said: “Israel had no choice but to stop the flotilla from breaking the blockade....While Israel was forced to take action in international waters, its actions are supported by international maritime law... personnel attempting to enforce the blockade were met with violence by the protesters and acted in self defense to fend off such attacks." Washington, not surprisingly, mumbled that it was ‘working to understand the circumstances surrounding the tragedy.’
What is visibly amiss is a reference to morality and to basic human values. What is absent is a consciousness of the fact that lives of real human beings was involved_ both in besieged, oppressed Gaza, and in the ship that carried volunteers on an aid mission. What is absent is that same understanding Shakespeare expressed ages ago in his memorable lines: “I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?” Only the names and identities change, the roles switch, never the human essence.
In my study of International Relations (upper case), just as in my layman’s observations of contemporary international relations (lower case), I have always encountered a cold rationalism, a rock-hard empiricism, a lack of propensity for and a sneering denigration of the normative dimension. I have encountered, as Kadmon stated, an overweening emphasis on being ‘worldly-wise’ in the pursuit of selfish national interest, and an unconcern towards the ‘rightness’ of an act. It is the way of the world, we are told. And it sure is. But the normative question of ‘does it really have to be so?’ is not asked. The rules have been set, compliance demanded.
As we grew more sophisticated and complexly technical in our theoretical groundwork and jargon, and as we devised fancier research methodologies, we convinced ourselves that to be authentic and credible, one had to be harshly amoral, ‘value-free’. This moral ambivalence or ‘neutrality’ characterizes International Relations discourse. It separates in most cases, raw fact from its accompanying context and deeper implications that emerge from the simple understanding that we deal with human beings and their lives, histories, cultures, attitudes and values. The flotilla attack is condemnable not because it was unwisely planned and unwisely executed, but because it was wrong. And it was wrong not because it was stupid, but because it was disproportionate, unprovoked aggression against virtually defenceless peace activists in international waters, and that it killed innocents who had no intent to confront and attack.
Kadmon’s stated cliché is the very heart of the matter.
The ‘value-free’ approach to I(i)nternational R(r)elations has been standardized, and lies at the base of both neo-realist and neo-liberal approaches_ think tanks, research institutes, opinion and policy-making circles that hold the strings, set the directions, orient policy, initiate and inform decision-making. Out of the many such entities dedicated to the dissemination of valueless International Relations, many happen to be run and influenced by lobbyists subscribing to the neo-Conservatist and Zionist worldviews.
The mainstream media too stems from these sources ideologically and otherwise. Roughly the same groups and individuals both own it and set the trends that govern the two domains. Care is taken to preserve an image of ‘objectivity’ and ‘neutrality’_ euphemisms for the moral vacuity that gapes behind the coverage of international affairs by the popular news media. Objectivity and neutrality in the wake of blatant inhumanity, violation of international law, oppression and injustice is criminal_ in fact, it is not really possible for a sensate human being to remain coldly ‘neutral’, and wherever one finds a decorous attempt at dispassionate ‘neutrality’, one ought to smell prejudice and bias. You have to take sides when one party is the victim and the other the perpetrator, and the flotilla incident does not leave us guessing at all. You have to realize your moral obligation and your duty as a human being. You have to stand by the truth and not escape from your moral duty by claiming to be ‘objective’ and ‘neutral’. Indifference and nonchalance in matters like this is tragic.
Media biases in covering the aid flotilla incident were glaringly obvious and have been highlighted by several independent writers. The Palestinian Return Centre (PRC) expressed its deep apprehension and anger over the BBC coverage regarding the freedom flotilla. The BBC’s coverage of the event was clearly lopsided, and any fool could see that. The incident was portrayed as a sort of battle, an action-reaction phenomenon_ not as piracy in the high seas, not as slaughter of peace activists in international waters, not as state terrorism. The official account of the Israeli deputy foreign minister was presented, which stated that the flotilla organizers’ intent was violent. Israeli spokespersons received ample air time to tell their side, while the counter argument was merely made mention of in passing. The viewers did not have versions to even choose from, so relentless was the assault on hearts and minds. The American mainstream media had a similar tenor. Not surprisingly, therefore, opinion polls show that nearly half - 49 percent - of likely U.S. voters believe that ‘pro-Palestinian’ activists were to blame for the deaths that occurred when the Israel Defense Forces raided a Gaza-bound aid flotilla, according to a new Ramussen poll survey. To set the record straight, one only needs to know that officials from the Israeli Defence Force had made clear their intent to thwart the passage of the aid flotilla towards Gaza. One only needs to see the bare statistics of the fatalities to know who was the victim and who the perpetrator.
This may have come to the fore this strikingly now, but the media biases in covering the Palestine-Israel conflict have been ever-present. The terrible plight of Gaza has not been adequately brought to light in its full intensity except in statistics quoted in opinion pieces on independent blogs and websites. Perhaps we have grown too used to the Palestinians in particular and Muslims in general being killed off like flies. It is nothing to be shouting about from the rooftops.
The ‘analysts’ and ‘experts’ on the Middle East, diplomats and heavily paid crisis managers too have not realized in full the gravity of the plight of the Gazans since the three-year-old siege with any zeal and commitment_ too bored by now, perhaps, of this weeping sore of history since over sixty years. This plays right into the hands of political leaders who pay no more than lip service. U.S rhetoric on the issue has turned positively meaningless, utterly predictable and pathetic. Puppets and dictators installed throughout the length and breadth of the Middle East measure carefully what and how much is to be said or done for Palestine, maintaining a cautious balance on the tightrope_ keeping their bosses in the U.S happy, not alarming Israel and dexterously taming and toning down the public opinion of millions of frustrated Muslim masses at home. If that is wisdom for you, I wish we were a bit less wise.
The flotilla has brought into the limelight the shocking reality in Gaza the world has quite forgotten. The blockade cripples the lives of 1.5 million people of Gaza. While Israel maintains that basic needs are met with the aid supplies that Israel allows, the fact is that these do not meet even 20 percent of the populations’ needs. The result has been 80 per cent population living in abject poverty and misery, and hundreds of deaths from lack of medical equipment and other necessary items. Ismail Patel writing for Al Jazeera states, “Never mind the fact that the blockade has been accompanied by near constant attacks from the Israeli army and navy, which totally eclipse any home made rockets from Gaza. The death toll speaks for itself, with four civilian deaths on the Israeli side and over 2,000 on the Gaza side since June 2007. This is not a just conflict between Israel and Gaza, it is an annihilation of one group of ill-equipped people by one of the mightiest armies in the world.”
Israel has worked hard both through its ‘wise’ state policies of censorship, propaganda, blockade and its influential lobbyists all over the world, to keep the terrible plight of Gaza eclipsed from view. Israel’s allies have been willing accomplices. Amnesty International complained in its annual report for 2010 that the U.S. and members of the European Union had obstructed international justice by using their positions on the UN Security Council to shield Israel from accountability for war crimes allegedly committed during last year’s Gaza war. The rights group also accused Israel of continually violating human rights in the Gaza Strip. It cited Israel’s ongoing economic blockade as violating international law, leaving Gaza residents without adequate food or water supplies. (reported by Haaretz News Service, May 31, 2010.)
If the contorted logic of ‘self defence’ for Israel is wisdom for you, I wish we were a bit less wise, and just a bit more righteous.
What makes the peace activists and aid workers on board the flotilla truly heroic is that they forced the world to look squarely at the plight of Gaza and managed to expose the ruthless ways of the occupier. They are heroic for their determination and resoluteness to challenge the brutal siege that makes Gaza what a journalist called ‘the largest open air prison in the world.’ What makes them heroic is their courage to confront the unabashed aggressor and through their personal sacrifice, to awaken the world’s sleeping conscience. They dared to confront the humungous Goliath with the conviction and moral power_ allegorically speaking_ of David’s lone slingshot. And just like that unequal confrontation eons ago in a distant history which, as later events unfolded, brought the mighty enemy to his knees, so will this little pioneering mission gather the unmitigated strength of humanity’s conscience and spearhead a formidable, global resistance from those who insist on retaining their humanity and defending their right to think, feel and act morally. Turkey has been jolted awake, and the world’s senses still reel from the shock of the brazen violation of law, human rights and basic morality that was witnessed. It will go a long way, to teach us that it is more important to be ‘a little more righteous’, and that this in fact is the highest wisdom. As a friend wrote, ‘I can see the winds of change blowing.’