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The Democratic Party’s support for Israel’s flotilla attack

President Obama's response to this tragedy underscores the phoniness of 'his advocacy for human rights elsewhere in the Middle East. He is quite willing to criticize the Iranian regime for killing nonviolent activists on the streets of Tehran. But he excuses Israel for killing nonviolent activists on the high seas.

Dr. Stephen Zunes

Every time Israel's right-wing government engages in yet another outrageous violation of international legal norms, it is easy to think, "No way are they going to get away with it this time!" And yet, thanks to the White House, Congress and leading American pundits, somehow, they do.

Israel's attack on an unarmed flotilla of humanitarian aid vessels in the eastern Mediterranean — resulting in nine fatalities, the wounding of scores of passengers and crew, and the kidnapping of 750 others — has so far not proven any different.

The bottom line is that under no circumstances does Israel, or any other country, have the right to board humanitarian aid vessels, guns blazing, in international waters.  International maritime law gives the crew of ships attacked in international waters the right to defend themselves. Certainly it would have been better if the largely Turkish crew of the ship where most of the fatalities took place had not fought back. But it was well within their legal right to do so. 

Israel's actions raise a number of questions. Why didn't the Israelis simply disable the rudders and guide the ships to port? Why did they have to board the ships with the guns blazing — according to eyewitnesses, before some members of the crew picked up their "weapons" of wrenches and poles — unless they intended to kill people?

The initial Israeli version of events has long since been debunked. "No one in the world will believe the lies and excuses which the government and army spokesmen come up with,observedUri Avnery, journalist and former Israeli Knesset member.  However, apologists in Washington for Israel's right-wing government have continued to repeat the Israeli line that the nonviolent activists were "terrorists" and that they had "weapons" they found on board, such as a wrench, a come-along winch, and other items commonly found on ships.  The Israeli government has withdrawn their earlier claims that they had found pistols and other guns on board, but its U.S. supporters are still repeating this lie.  In reality, the "Freedom Flotilla" — a convoy of six ships organized by a coalition of human rights activists from Europe, North America, the Middle East, and elsewhere — allowed people to take part in the "Freedom Flotilla," only on the ground  that they "agree to adhere to the principles of non-violence and non-violent resistance in word and deed at all times."

Critics of the flotilla are partially correct in observing that the purpose of the voyage was not just to deliver badly needed aid, but to "provoke a confrontation."  This, however, is part of the great tradition of nonviolent direct action. For example, civil rights activists in the 1960s were similarly criticized for provoking confrontation by sitting in at lunch counters, marching across Selma's Edmund Pettus Bridge, and demonstrating in downtown Birmingham. It was only through such confrontations, revealing the brutality of the oppressor, that change was made.

The Israelis confiscated virtually all of the passengers' cameras, laptops, cell phones, and other personal devices. The world, therefore, could only see some carefully edited versions from cameramen that accompanied the Israeli commandos. What the world could not see, for example, will be the accounts of eyewitnesses of commandos with stun guns assaulting passengers who nonviolently formed a ring around the ship's bridge, the savage beatings of elderly pacifists as they lay on the ground, and other acts of excessive violence.

Russia, Turkey, India, China, Brazil, France, Spain, and many other countries quickly and categorically condemned the attack on the humanitarian convoy. By stark contrast, the White House issued a statement  that simply "expressed deep regret at the loss of life in today's incident, and concern for the wounded." The White House did not criticize Israel's actions. Meanwhile, the State Department  appeared to condemn the multinational effort to deliver medical supplies and other humanitarian aid, saying that ""expanding the flow of goods to the people of Gaza…must be done in a spirit of cooperation, not confrontation."  

Similarly, Obama's ambassador to the United Nations insisted that those wishing to aid the people of Gaza  should use "non-provocative and non-confrontational mechanisms" and that "direct delivery by sea is neither appropriate nor responsible." Given that Israel has steadfastly refused efforts by the international community to provide aid through "non-provocative and non-confrontational mechanisms," it is unclear what the Obama administration suggests doing instead.

Had Barack Obama been in office at the time of the 1948 Soviet blockade of Berlin instead of Harry Truman, would he have rejected launching the airlift because he felt that addressing the humanitarian crisis in West Berlin "must be done in a spirit of cooperation, not confrontation," and that the West should use "non-provocative and non-confrontational mechanisms?"

Perhaps a more revealing analogy would be this: Imagine how the Obama administration would have reacted if the attack on the vessels had been done by Iranians instead of the Israelis. Imagine if the Iranians had killed the passengers and crew, kidnapped hundreds of people on the ships, brought them to Iran, and held them incommunicado. It's not likely that the White House would give the Iranians a free ride for such a blatant violation of international law. Nor would the media and Washington pundits be spewing out the Iranian account of events before the hostages even had a chance to tell their side of the story.

At the United Nations, the United States successfully blocked the Security Council from passing a resolution on the issue, accepting only an endorsement of a statement by the Security Council president, and then only after watering the statement down significantly. The original draft statement condemned Israel for violating international law, demanded an investigation by the United Nations, and insisted that Israel prosecute those responsible for the raid and pay compensation to the victims. However, the Obama administration refused to accept such wording. Instead, the statement simply condemned "those acts" that resulted in deaths, without naming Israel, implying that the victims on board the ships shared responsibility for getting killed when the Israelis engaged in an unprovoked attack on their ships in international waters. Indeed, when White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs was specifically asked whether the United States condemned Israeli conduct, he said that there was not enough information to make such a determination.

The Security Council president's statement also called for "a credible, impartial, and transparent investigation." The United States, however, insisted that such an investigation should only be done by the Israeli government itself.  According to Deputy Permanent Representative Alejandro Wolff, "We are convinced and support an Israeli investigation...and have every confidence that Israel can conduct a credible and impartial and transparent, prompt investigation internally." However, according to recent reports by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, the Netanyahu government has failed miserably at conducting such credible investigations regarding violations of human rights and international legal norms by their forces. Surely, the Obama administration is aware of this. As a result, this raises questions as to whether the Obama administration even wants the truth to be known.

Indeed, Obama's response to this tragedy underscores the phoniness of 'his advocacy for human rights elsewhere in the Middle East. He is quite willing to criticize the Iranian regime for killing nonviolent activists on the streets of Tehran. But he excuses Israel for killing nonviolent activists on the high seas.

Stephen Zunes is a professor of politics and  international studies at the University of San Francisco.