Yesterday’s Assault

In the wake of yesterday’s assault on the Gaza aid flotilla, the most important tactic of Israel’s defenders, such as including the American government, has been to focus on the details of the events which transpired aboard the Mavi Marmara in the early stages of the confrontation. The Israelis argue that their military was pursuing something like peaceful crowd control until they were attacked by activists aboard the ship, and pointing to the two seriously and eight lightly injured soldiers, insist they fired in self-defense.
The Israeli preference, in other words, is to have a discussion about rules of engagement. In attempting to focus the international discussion there, they are also implicitly asking their critics to somewhat carelessly accept the premise that the flotilla represented a force which required a military assault in international waters. If the Mavi Marmara was something like a transport vessel carrying an enemy guerrilla force, then what took place aboard her decks loses its power.
No one, however, really contends that the activists attacked the soldiers first. That bears emphasizing, because the Israeli position also requires acceptance of the fact that scrambling the communications of and forcibly boarding a ship in international waters is not a form of attack against which the activists with their makeshift weapons sought in vain to defend themselves, only to be smashed by the superior Israeli firepower. I’m sure Israeli commanders did hope to achieve their objectives without bloodshed, but the logic and arc of the events they set in motion carried that possibility from their conception.
Despite half-baked claims to the contrary, this was not, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed today, “a violent force”, and the Israelis have apparently found no weapons to trumpet before the cameras. Instead, they have found a bunch of humanitarian aid which they are allegedly transferring to Gaza themselves. I would love for someone to examine that situation, and determine how much of it was in violation of Israel’s draconian blockade of the territory, and consequently how dangerous it can really be if Israel’s now just passing it on.
For the real story here is not about a military confrontation at sea, but about an ongoing siege the consequences of which for the Gaza Strip have been well documented elsewhere. If Israel were just checking ships and convoys for weapons and then waving them on, this flotilla would not have existed. The violence yesterday was but an extension of the ongoing violence of siege which does not protect Israel, but makes Gaza into a giant internment camp in which conditions are becoming increasingly desperate. In this context, who did what to whom once the Israeli assault was in progress simply doesn’t matter.
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Have you not watched the videos? The huge number of people wielding bats and clubs doesn’t count as “weapons” or “violence”? It was a lynch mob.
But five of the six ships were boarded without incident–why no attacks there? Apparently nobody on those other ships saw a need to “defend themselves” from what was happening. I don’t see any way to argue that the mass lynching unleashed on the soldiers on that one ship was inevitable in any way. This is “self-defense”?
Look, the videos released (and being shown on Israeli TV, although I’m sure not in the Arab world) show the commandos being violently assaulted by dozens of club-wielding people from the instant they started landing on the boat. The people who flew at the soldiers were in no way “peaceful” or “unarmed,” directly contrary to all the claims of the flotilla organizers.
Do you really not see the Israeli perspective here? They see clear-cut video of their soldiers getting attacked by a would-be lynch mob before any of the Israelis have drawn any of their weapons, which was something they didn’t intend to do unless necessary (and, apparently, something they didn’t need to do on any of the other ships).
The argument about whether the soldiers should have been there in the first place is a fair one, but the argument that this somehow shifts or absolves responsibility for the murderous assault on them is not.