Purity of arms: Israel’s predictable, historic and ghastly Gaza flotilla blunder

The whole point of the “Gaza flotilla” was to get a reaction out of Israel and call international attention to the problem of the blockade of Gaza. Israeli officials described it as “a provocation” and I’m not sure that was entirely incorrect: like all other acts of civil disobedience it was designed to provoke a response. I’m shocked but not surprised that the Israeli military, which was determined to prevent those ships from reaching the Gaza port, managed to mishandle the situation so badly that, as present report stand, at least 10 flotilla participants were killed and 60 injured. The Israelis claim that the ships had weapons on board and that their commandos were attacked with sticks and knives and had to defend themselves. I don’t think anyone in the world with the least degree of critical rationality is going to take this explanation at face value. It’s been rendered even more fatuous by the extraordinary hyperbole coming out of Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, who claimed that flotilla members were connected not only to Hamas, but to Al Qaeda! Next they will be telling us these were members of the Nazi party. It won’t wash.

Flotilla organizers are no doubt shocked, horrified and appalled by the way this has turned out. But if they were engaged in classic civil disobedience, their action has actually produced some version of the intended result. If the point is to provoke a reaction, and indeed an overreaction, to make a point, they have succeeded beyond their wildest imagination. This bloodbath is likely to create sustained international attention to the way Israel has treated the Gaza Strip in a way that nothing else has since the Gaza war and possibly since the beginning of the blockade. Compare it to the “Mississippi Freedom Summer” in which young white Americans from around the country went to the bastion of Jim Crow in order to organize local African-Americans, register them to vote, educate them and confront segregation. They knew it was a dangerous situation, and they were shocked but not surprised when James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman were abducted and killed by the KKK as the project just got going. There were many other acts of quasi-official violence meted out to the volunteers, and while the organizers obviously would have preferred to have avoided all of that, they expected it and it was part of their strategy. The largely but not entirely unstated reasoning was that the country would continue to ignore massive violence directed towards the African-American community in Mississippi, but could and would not remain oblivious to similar violence directed towards young, white, middle-class college students from New York City and other metropolitan centers. This, indeed, proved the case. The violence directed at the Mississippi Freedom Summer shocked the conscience of the country and was among the numerous decisive moments in the civil rights movement that ultimately succeeded in dismantling the apparatus of formalized racism in the United States.

I don’t think the analogy is terribly strained, though obviously it’s merely about strategy and not a political or moral comparison. The flotilla activists knew they were sailing towards a confrontation with the Israeli military. They also knew how the Israeli military deals with anyone, including civilians, who challenge its arrangements in Gaza. Let me venture that the idea was that if anything dreadful should happen to the activists on the ships, it would focus attention and international coverage and concern on the violence that underlies the Gaza blockade in a way that could not be generated by Israel’s violence towards the local population in Gaza. I think that’s clearly going to prove the case. Tohar HaNeshek, the “purity of arms” that the Israeli military boasts of, has many times over proven itself to be a hollow, meaningless doctrine, and today it is in greater disrepute than ever.

I doubt the incredible, historic, blunder of the way in which the Israeli military has mishandled the Gaza flotilla will end the siege or fundamentally change the realities regarding the Gaza Strip. However, I do think it will have a lasting impact on Israel’s international reputation. Israelis are concerned about “delegitimization,” and so they should be. Their own army just made the biggest contribution to the process of delegitimization we’ve seen in a very long time. Even if they are able to produce plausible evidence that some of the flotilla passengers were holding sticks, or even knives, where they were being boarded, it’s not going to convince anyone that so many people had to be killed and injured to seize a few ships. Somali piracy has usually even avoided this kind of death toll. I’m not sure how Israel is going to be able to live this down. It will have significant and serious long-term implications, and if the organizers of the flotilla were hoping to engineer a major public relations event, they certainly got their way.