A version of this essay originally appeared in the Israeli Webzine Nrg
TEL AVIV — In Israel, many are tempted to try and reduce the debate over the Gaza flotilla “incident” to one narrow question: Why didn’t the Israeli Navy, with its professional experience, properly take into account a scenario of violent resistance by individuals on board the vessel being boarded? Unfortunately, this limited formulation entirely misses the essential question. The catastrophe on board the Marmara did not begin with the landing of the first Israeli soldier on deck but much, much earlier.
So here is a brief attempt to summarize what has really brought Israel to this point. And, such an attempt must begin with the Gaza blockade.
The blockade of Gaza is in fact the siege of an entire civilian population. True, the Hamas government in Gaza is a brutal, anti-democratic regime that violates human rights on a regular basis. It deprives [captured Israeli soldier] Gilad Shalit of his most essential basic rights and does not hesitate to attack innocent Israeli civilians. But the price for the crimes of the Hamas government is being exacted by Israel on a civilian population of 1.5 million people under siege, unable to leave Gaza, their lives kept just above the bar of a humanitarian crisis.
Israel’s siege represents a blatant violation of Gazan civilians’ human rights. Around the world, it inspires rage against Israeli policy, engendering sympathy with the plight of Gazans. After the disengagement, most Israelis would probably prefer to forget the entire existence of Gaza, save for returning Gilad Shalit safely back home and preventing rocket fire on Israeli communities. But for these two issues, Gaza does not exist in the mind of the Israeli public and most Israelis feel no responsibility for the fate of its inhabitants.
But to the world, Gaza and its people do exist. Further, considering Israel’s considerable - even if indirect - control of Gaza, it only takes basic common sense to conclude that with considerable control of Gaza’s inhabitants also comes considerable responsibility for their fate.
This discrepancy - of facts, perception, and values - has put Israeli government policy on a collision course with reality. And since the entire planet does not singularly bow down to the authority of Israel’s foreign policy and its imagined connection with reality, it is no surprise that people have begun trying to break the siege on Gaza.
And so, to truly address the situation, we have to begin with the following essential, outraged question: What on earth were the naval fighters doing out there in the first place?
Here was the crux where Israel could have decided to act otherwise, on a carefully considered policy level rather on a reactionary level. Israel did not have to send its troops into battle against a flotilla which was perceived throughout the world as a humanitarian mission. On a policy level, Israel should be allowing the passage of goods into Gaza, and not impose an ongoing siege on its inhabitants. If not for the ongoing siege of Gaza’s population, there would be no need for an international humanitarian mission - genuine or provocative. Moreover, there would be no need for the many tunnels that regularly smuggle goods, and weapons, into Gaza.
But there is an Israeli siege on Gaza, and there was an attempt to try to break it. In light of this, Israel should have avoided military confrontation with the flotilla, which was essentially an expression of protest by virtue of humanitarian aid. In either case the flotilla represented no security threat, certainly not one justifying military force deployed on such a scale and in such a way. When you send in commandos to deal with civilians, you can’t argue that the writing wasn’t on the wall.
Israel chose to use military force, just as it chose to prevent aid from entering Gaza and to squelch expressions of solidarity with the Gazan people. Israel has chosen to continue the siege on Gaza. The result of all this is the dead and wounded on board the Marmara.
Those in the Israeli public focusing on the simplistic question might inquire about the operational performance of the naval commandos, and might consider the public relations disaster that the state is now forced to deal with. But these miss the point: Israel is becoming a pariah state because its leadership continues to make pariah decisions dictated by their pariah policies. This is not mere nearsightedness or amateur stupidity. It is an essential problem - a crisis of values that leads decision-makers to besiege a civilian population and to send combat soldiers to sea to fight against foreign civilians. One can complain all they want about how much the world is against Israel, about how the Gaza flotilla was a provocation, and about the hostile world media.
One could also choose to believe that the author of this article is a traitor collaborating with the enemy, a self hating Jew, or both. Whatever. Still, these remain no more than excuses that distract us from the essential question, excuses that will not change the facts.
Israel is a sovereign state whose government is responsible for the decisions it makes of its own free will. We don’t need excuses. What we need is a conceptual change on the part of Israel’s decision makers - one that views the Gazan population as human beings and that takes responsibility for their fate - and, at the end of the day, our own fate as well.
If Israel continues to steer her ship against the tides of universal human values, she will continue to drown herself.