Attack that backfired

2011-02-09 00:00

THE conflict between Israel and the Palestinians has been much in the news recently, so the appearance of this book (published first in the United States and now in South Africa) is timely. Its main subject is the attack by the Israeli navy — before dawn on May 31, 2010 outside territorial waters — on a number of ships that were bringing various kinds of humanitarian aid to the Palestinian inhabitants of blockaded Gaza.

The people on the ships were concerned citizens of 32 different countries: lawyers, journalists, academics, parliamentarians, activists, doctors, artists and so on. None of them was armed.

The attack focused particularly on the largest ship, the Turkish Mavi Marmara. Fully-armed masked troops boarded from dinghies and were dropped from helicopters; shots were fired at once. A few of those on the ship resisted with whatever they could find: sticks, bits of metal. Nine of the passengers were killed, and many more were wounded.

Those on the ships were taken to Israel, and their cameras and mobile phones were confiscated so that they could not give the world their version of what had happened. Meanwhile, the Israeli government announced that heroic Israeli troops had had to shoot in self­defence. Some of the world’s media, particularly those in the U.S, accepted this account with alacrity. But before long, of course, the truth came out, and even the Israeli government had to change its story. World opinion was profoundly shocked, both by the episode itself and by the way the media had been manipulated.

The book consists of 48 short essays, all written by different people — people of varied backgrounds — describing the incident and analysing its implications. The best known of the writers are the philosopher Noam Chomsky, and the novelists Alice Walker and Henning Mankell, who were on the Mavi Marmara.

The overall impression given by the essays, as the book’s title suggests, is that the incident, displaying as it did the brutality that the Israeli regime was prepared to resort to, has largely undermined that country’s attempt to prove to the world that its handling of the Palestinian issue has been just and that Israel is the victim of political unfairness, which it chooses to call (since the word is emotive) anti-Semitism.

A number of the essays describe vividly the miserable, confined lives that Palestinians are forced to endure; all writers see it as an instance of “collective punishment”, which is illegal in international law.

Other essays examine in detail the effects of Israeli actions against the Palestinians, but particularly the invasion of Gaza in 2008-9 and the May 31 attack on the “freedom flotilla”, on public opinion in Turkey, in Europe and in the U.S. and the growth of the movement for BDS (boycott, disinvestment, sanctions).

The solidarity movement is modelled on the successful anti-apartheid movement, and references to apartheid South Africa are frequent. It seems certain that a groundswell of opinion is emerging.

But the problem is that Israel has always been and still is jealously protected by the U.S. government, which is itself pressurised by the Israel lobby. (The book suggests, however, that this lobby may soon begin to lose its power.)

In this respect Obama and Biden have been a disappointment.

And America’s support of Israel at all costs has had an intimidating effect on other governments, who hesitate to lose favour with a powerful ally.

And so, at the moment, the ugly problem drags on. It may perhaps seem a small issue in a small region, but it is not. Israel is immensely significant.

Many believe that the issue that lies at the heart of the extremist Islamist resentment of the West is Israel, and the U.S.’s determination to support it in every circumstance.

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