Israeli murder on the high seas

Alan Maass reports on Israel's deadly assault on a flotilla carrying humanitarian aid.

Israeli soldiers fire on solidarity activists after landing on the deck of the lead ship in the Gaza Freedom FlotillaIsraeli soldiers fire on solidarity activists after landing on the deck of the lead ship in the Gaza Freedom Flotilla

PEOPLE AROUND the world reacted with furious protests after Israeli commandos carried out an assault on a flotilla of boats carrying humanitarian aid and solidarity activists to the besieged Gaza Strip.

At least 10 activists were killed and dozens more injured when Israeli soldiers--operating under cover of darkness in the early morning hours of May 31--attacked. Twenty-four hours after the assault, the Israeli government still had not released the names of those killed or injured.

According to a statement from the Free Gaza Movement, an organizer of the flotilla:

Under darkness of night, Israeli commandos dropped from a helicopter onto the Turkish passenger ship, Mavi Marmara, and began to shoot the moment their feet hit the deck. They fired directly into the crowd of civilians asleep...Streaming video shows the Israeli soldiers shooting at civilians, and our last SPOT beacon said: "HELP, we are being contacted by the Israelis."

The ships were brought to the Israeli port of Ashdod, and the activists were detained. According to one press report, some activists agreed to sign a statement saying they wouldn't attempt to enter Israel again and were being held until deportation--but others were refusing to sign and had been taken to a prison in southern Israel.

From the time of the assault, Israel clamped down on any and all communication with the activists. One Guardian reporter, who encountered several at an Israeli hospital in Ashkelon, just north of Gaza, wrote:

[A] Greek man in a neck brace told reporters: "They hit me." Who? "Pirates," he answered. A dazed man with a striking black eye was unloaded from an ambulance. There had been "some brutality" on board, he said, but the activists were nonviolent. "We are all Palestinian now," he said as the doors of the ER closed behind him.

With the voices of the activists almost completely silenced, Israeli officials spread claims that the commandos had faced a violent and "premeditated" attack by the peace activists.

Though the U.S. mainstream media lapped up the Israeli version, the story rang hollow. Judging from video of the assault, at most, some passengers on the ship resisted with sticks and other items that came to hand. "Aid volunteers are unlikely, however, to have posed much real challenge to trained Special Forces operatives," wrote Middle East expert Juan Cole on his Informed Comment blog.

As the Electronic Intifada Web site wrote in an editorial:

The Israeli media strategy appeared to be to maintain censorship of the facts such as the number of dead and injured, the names of the victims and on which ships the injuries occurred, while aggressively putting out its version of events, which is based on a dual strategy of implausibly claiming "self-defense," while demonizing the Freedom Flotilla passengers and intimating that they deserved what they got.

Even Israeli officials had to admit, however, that the attack took place in international waters. Since the main vessel where the violence took place was flying a Turkish flag, the Israeli assault amounted to an attack on "Turkish and international civilians on Turkish soil," Frank Barat, a peace activist living in London, who worked on organizing the flotilla along with the Free Gaza Movement. "So I think what's going to happen with Turkey in the next few days is going to be very interesting."

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

THE ATTACK on the flotilla spurred protests in many countries. According to Al-Jazeera, an organization of Palestinians inside Israel has called for a general strike.

At a Palestinian demonstration at Qalandiya checkpoint in the West Bank on Monday, an American activist with the International Solidarity Movement was shot in the face with a tear gas canister. Emily Henochowicz was rushed to a Jerusalem hospital, where surgeons reportedly removed her left eye.

Anger ran especially high in Turkey, where many of the solidarity activists are from. According to press reports, tens of thousands of people gathered in Istanbul to protest, with smaller numbers demonstrating outside the Israeli embassy in the capital of Ankara and the U.S. consulate in Adana. The Turkish Foreign Ministry condemned Israel's "inhumane practices"--a sign of a further breakdown in relations with a country that was once one of Israel's few allies in the region.

The U.S. government's criticisms, on the other hand, were tepid. A White House spokesperson stated that President Obama "deeply regrets the loss of life and injuries sustained."

As Barat pointed out, "If any other country in the world had acted the way Israel did, I'm sure the U.S. government would say there needs to be a full investigation. The U.S. government has to be put under pressure to act in a responsible manner and stop the double standard it always applies to Israel."

The activists' boats were carrying 10,000 tons of desperately needed aid. Basic goods such as concrete, toys, workbooks, food and medical supplies have been barred from getting to Gaza under the siege that Israel imposed, with the cooperation of the U.S. government, following the victory of the Islamist party Hamas in elections for the Palestinian Authority in January 2006.

Israeli officials claimed the activists could have avoided a confrontation if they had delivered the aid to an Israeli port, where it could have been transported to Gaza "through appropriate channels," said Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon. "On a daily basis, we do that."

But this is a lie--exposed in the statements of the World Health Organization (WHO) contradicting Israeli claims that its siege lets through enough food and supplies. According to WHO, hunger stalks the population of Gaza, and one in 10 people are physically stunted from malnutrition.

That was only one of many fabrications to emerge from the Israeli propaganda machine. Israeli government officials claimed wildly that the peace activists were connected to "international terrorism."

Reporters were denied access to the activists to hear their side of the story--but were encouraged to talk to a parade of Israeli officials and soldiers peddling the story that the commando team was armed only with non-lethal paintball weapons, and was attacked by activists carrying out a plan to "lynch" them.

Journalists for mainstream news organizations were traveling with the flotilla, and some managed to get word out as the assault was launched. As the Associated Press reported:

An al-Jazeera journalist delivering a report before Israel cut communications said Israel fired at the vessel before boarding it. In one Web posting, a Turkish television reporter on the boat cried out, "These savages are killing people here, please help" -- a broadcast that ended with a voice shouting in Hebrew, "Everybody shut up!"

Eventually, media reports began to acknowledge that the Israeli assault had "gone badly awry." But as Electronic Intifada pointed out, blame for the massacre should be shared:

What should be clear is this: no one can claim to be surprised by what the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights correctly termed a "hideous crime." Israel had been openly threatening a violent attack on the flotilla for days, but complacency, complicity and inaction, specifically from Western and Arab governments once more sent the message that Israel could act with total impunity...

As protest and solidarity actions begin in Palestine and across the world, this is the message they must carry: enough impunity, enough complicity, enough Israeli massacres and apartheid. Justice now.