Once again the Israeli Government and the Israeli Defence Force have shown their utter contempt for (non-Israeli) human life and for international law by boarding an aid ship in international waters and killing between ten and twenty of its passengers. The bitter reality, though, is that condemnation from the non-Islamic world will be token and short lived. If Israel can get away with invading Lebanon, killing at least 1,500 people, mostly civilians, and bombing identified UN peacekeepers what do a few hippies on a boat matter?
Well, not quite hippies. The ship was part of a flotilla ferrying about 700 people, including Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mairead Corrigan Maguire, a number of European legislators and an elderly Holocaust survivor. It was organised by a broad coalition of groups and although many of the ships were Turkish registered, the activists came mostly from around Europe. The number of casualties is still, at the time of writing, unclear although some reports indicate that most are Turks.
Turkey's relationship with Israel, strategically and historically important, has been under strain for some time. This latest event may be a killer blow. Turkey's Foreign Ministry has said this “breach of international law may lead to irreparable consequences in our bilateral relations” and an unnamed source has indicated that Turkey is looking at its rights under international law.
Amos Harel suggests in Haaretz that the more significant fall-out will be with Palestinians, those with Israeli citizenship and those denied it. If it is confirmed that Raed Salah, the head of the Islamic Movement's northern branch is one of the dead he predicts riots and the real possibility of a third intifada.
The response from Europe has, in contrast, been predicably inconsequential. The EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton has called for a "full inquiry". Greece summoned Israel's ambassador to demand a report on the safety of any of its citizens on board and has cancelled a join military exercise with Israel. German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said he was “deeply concerned”. The French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner was the most outspoken. “I am deeply shocked.... we do not understand the still provisional human toll of such an operation against a humanitarian initiative that has been known for several days" he said.
But ultimately such words mean nothing. The Israeli Government acts with belligerent distain for the niceties of diplomatic signalling. It knows that it acts as an agent for Western interests in the Middle East. Under such conditions the world can say what it likes but Israel will continue to act with impunity. Who else could get away with slapping the President of the USA in the face TWICE with the same trick and still be told that the US had "no better friend than Israel"? If I didn't know better I'd think that Netanyahu was having a laugh at Obama's expense.
As far as the dead humanitarians go, Israel claims that its soldiers were shot at when they boarded the boat. That is not what the video indicates or what journalists on board the Mavi Marmara report. Even if it were true, people have a right to protect themselves against piracy in international waters.
Israel says that the flotilla was a stunt. Well, of course it was. It is meant to draw attention to the terrible nature and effects of the blockade of Gaza, which Israel and Egypt imposed when the people of Gaza exercised their democratic rights to elect a Hamas government. If the blockade was meant to dislodge Hamas, however, it has been a complete failure. What it has done instead, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, is destroy the economy of Gaza and prevent reconstruction of the badly damaged area.
The Israeli government says it allows 15,000 tonnes of aid a week into Gaza but this is a fraction of what is needed according to the UN, which describes the situation in Gaza as “increasingly desperate”. In addition Israel places heavy restriction on reconstruction materials such cement and building materials. South African judge Richard Goldstone, on a UN fact-finding mission has suggested that the blockade of Gaza be considered a crime against humanity.
It would be nice to think that the deaths of the flotilla activists are not in vain and that this terrible incident acts as a catalyst to break the blockade of Gaza and allow the Palestinian people to breathe a bit more freely. Somehow, however, I doubt it. Geopolitics will prove once again to be more important to Western Governments than the lives of Arabs – or indeed of their own people.