The Israeli commando assault on a flotilla bringing aid to Gaza which killed at least nine civilians should be a wake-up call for those who want to believe that Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu’s government is capable of making rational decisions. The flotilla, consisting of nationals from as many as twenty countries, was unarmed and carrying relief supplies that had been carefully inspected by the Turkish authorities. It was in international waters when it was attacked. More than 600 passengers and crew, apart from those who were killed, were subsequently arrested by Israel for refusing to identify themselves. If all that is correct, then Tel Aviv is guilty of piracy, kidnapping, and murder while the armed attack on a Turkish flagged vessel might be construed as inviting a military response from NATO. One of the vessels bore an American flag and there were at least eight US citizens on board, including a former ambassador and a USS Liberty survivor, suggesting that a strong reaction from Washington would not be inappropriate
Israel’s opposing narrative is that it has a right to defend itself, that there were terrorist affiliated groups connected to the flotilla, and that its soldiers were attacked when they boarded the largest vessel. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is putting out what amounts to the official line on its website and in memos to congressmen, i.e. that "Radical Hamas supporters beat, stab Israeli soldiers." The United States, predictably, has already blocked a UN Security Council resolution proposed by Turkey that would have blamed Israel for the incident. Washington is permitting an inquiry into the killings but will undoubtedly veto any serious penalty against Israel no matter what the findings, souring relations with key ally Turkey and with most of the Muslim world for the foreseeable future.
The nicest thing that might be said about the Israeli raid is that it was a botched job. The Israelis expected to lead the vessels into port like sheep, but to their surprise some of the sheep resisted. Tel Aviv’s argument that the convoy was a threat against Israel just does not hold water as it is completely clear that the supplies on board were humanitarian in nature and both the passengers and crewmen were unarmed. If there was a threat to Israel, it was purely psychological. The so-called terrorist group being cited by the Israelis and their drumbeat chorus is a Turkish charity called Humanitarian Relief Fund, which is not regarded by anyone but Benjamin Netanyahu and his foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman as subversive. That passengers on a ship might try to defend themselves from attackers using whatever makeshift weapons came to hand should not be regarded as a provocation, and certainly not as an opportunity to open fire with live ammunition and shoot more than forty people, killing at least nine. What were soldiers doing attacking a vessel in the middle of the night in international waters in the first place?
It is now only three days after the Israeli attack and it is clear that the good old hasbara spin machine is working overtime. The story of what actually happened is already vanishing from the newspapers. Instead we are seeing and will continue to see articles, letters, and opinion pieces justifying what Israel did. The Washington Post, which has become a neocon bastion under editorial page editor Fred Hiatt, led the charge with three feature articles on June 1st plus a lead editorial. All the pieces refer to the passengers on the ships as "pro-Palestinian activists" but the editorial goes one step farther in referring to them as "militants." The editorial "The flotilla fiasco" began with "The Israeli commandos who landed on the deck of the Turkish ferry Mavi Marmara off the coast of the Gaza Strip early Monday were totally unprepared for what they encountered: dozens of militants who swarmed around them with knives and iron bars" and then went on to explain "We have no sympathy for the motives of the participants in the flotilla – a motley collection…Israel says that some of the organizers have ties to Hamas and al-Qaeda."
The three news articles are equally slanted both in their language and what they choose to report. The feature article in its morning edition had a sub-headline "Commandos battle with pro-Palestinian activists" and includes a color photo of an "activist" praying on board the Turkish vessel. A second article "Israel says Free Gaza Movement poses threat to Jewish state" with the sub-heading "Aid flotilla was run by member charity with alleged ties to Islamists." The Free Gaza movement is then described as a "security threat to the Jewish state." The Post coverage is basically a compendium of made-in-Israel talking points. The incident is invariably described as a "battle" as if it were a face-off between two equal opponents instead of an attack by heavily armed soldiers against unarmed civilians. The coverage exploits key words: Terrorism, Threat, al-Qaeda.
And what is the actual evidence that the flotilla threatened Israel? Well, even by The Post‘s nearly nonexistent standards there doesn’t seem to be much beyond Fred Hiatt’s penchant for name calling. It is pretty much agreed that the ships were in international waters, were unarmed, and were carrying relief supplies. The only actual evidence cited for possible extremist ties on the part of the organizers is one line concerning the Turkish charity affiliate, "Humanitarian Relief Fund…raises some of its money from Islamic religious groups." Jonathan Schanzer’s "The Terror Finance Flotilla" in The Weekly Standard also indicts Humanitarian Relief Fund, calling it an "officially designated terrorist organization" because Israel has it on a list.
Finally, all Americans should realize that this most recent Israeli outrage is another lose-lose situation for the United States. US congressmen are already lining up to support the Israeli action and the State Department is silent about the American student who had her eye shot out by Israeli border policemen while demonstrating peacefully against the attack on the flotilla. Washington will yet again have to look the ridiculous hypocrite before the entire world in a new wag-the-dog scenario in which it is forced to provide diplomatic cover for an out of control Israel. Having escaped any punishment yet again, Israel’s reckless leadership might also be emboldened to up the ante, confident that it can contrive a situation with Iran that will draw the United States into a new shooting war. The US will also pay the price in other ways. Key ally Turkey will inevitably cease to cooperate on issues like the Iranian nuclear program after being punished by the US media and Congress, a process that has already started on The Weekly Standard‘s blog. Washington’s backing of Israel in what surely must be viewed as a massacre will further erode any support from Islamic countries for US policies and will serve as a recruiting tool for groups like al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Even if one is not a fan of US empire and the current crop of pointless wars, it is heartbreaking to have to witness an increasing number of young Americans delivered up as cannon fodder in a growing confrontation with a Muslim world that is angry with Israel and taking revenge by attacking the United States.