Denying the obvious

2010-08-18 00:00

THEY are all lying, of course. The pro-Palestinian activists who said that the flotilla of ships that tried to breach the Israeli blockade and take aid to the Gaza Strip had purely humanitarian goals were lying, and so are the Israeli officials who blandly insist that the blockade is solely to stop offensive weapons from reaching the Hamas-ruled enclave. But only the Israeli commandos who seized the ships and killed nine people had guns.

The flotilla had a clear propaganda purpose, seeking a confrontation that would draw attention to the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip and the plight of the Palestinians. The blockade has the clear political purpose of squeezing the million-and-a-half Palestinians in that open-air prison and turning them against the Hamas regime that currently rules them. Nobody wanted it to end in deaths — but there were nine dead civilians and no dead Israelis.

Testifying on August 9 to Israel’s own Commission of Inquiry into the events, Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu stuck to the script. The Israeli commandos had displayed “exceptional bravery in carrying out their mission and in defending themselves from genuine and lethal danger”, he claimed.

Elsewhere, Netanyahu has referred to the dead activists alternately as “terrorist fanatics” and “mercenaries”, although most people would see these as mutually exclusive categories. Terrorist fanatics don’t usually expect to be paid, whereas mercenaries most definitely do — and both terrorists and mercenaries generally take something a little more lethal than sticks and iron bars to the party. But let it pass.

Netanyahu is just employing the usual tactic of blaming the victims for their own deaths, and that allegation will probably not be challenged by the Israeli inquiry. What the world should be paying attention to is the United Nations inquiry. Or rather, to the one that even Israel cannot ignore.

There are actually two UN inquiries. The first was created by the UN Human Rights Commission (UNHRC), which the Israelis always depict as hopelessly biased. (Its members include Sir Desmond de Silva from Britain, a former undersecretary of the UN and war-crimes prosecutor, and Karl Hudson-Phillips from Trinidad and Tobago, a former judge at the International Court of Justice, but never mind.)

“We are not going to even grace [the UNHRC inquiry] with an official statement,” said an Israeli official. “They are totally irrelevant.” But it is much harder for Israel to ignore the Panel of Inquiry created last week by UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon, chaired by former New Zealand prime minister Jeffrey Palmer, with Colombia’s outgoing president, Alvaro Uribe, as vice chairperson and official representatives from both Israel and Turkey.

Netanyahu reluctantly agreed to let Israeli officials testify at the UN inquiry — but then insisted that he had a deal with Ban that none of the Israeli commandos involved in the killing would be called before the inquiry. Ban said on August 9 that there was no such deal, and that’s where matters rest today. But the sheer cheek of the Israeli prime minister is astounding: nobody is to be allowed to question the men who actually did the shooting?

Even in Israel’s most devoted allies, the United States and the United Kingdom, soldiers sometimes do extremely brutal and stupid things. The U.S. National Guard killed four anti-Vietnam War protesters at Kent State University in Ohio in 1970, for example, and the British army killed 13 Catholic protesters on Bloody Sunday in Northern Ireland in 1972.

Sometimes the soldiers just panic and use far too much force. More often they seize on the pretext of some minor violence by the “activists” to do what they really want to do, which is kill some of them. Then, at the inquiry, they lie about it — and the state, always solicitous of military morale, pretends to believe them.

So we should not expect the UN inquiry to work miracles. It took 40 years for Britain to admit the truth about Bloody Sunday, and nobody was punished for it. The truth about Ohio came out a lot faster, but nobody was punished for that either. The one big difference here is that whereas the U.S. National Guard killed American citizens, and the British army killed British citizens, the Israeli commandos killed Turkish citizens.

That’s why the UN got involved this time. As to why Netanyahu won’t let any of the commandos be questioned, it’s the usual defensive reflex. He would be better advised to let them be exposed as undisciplined killers — the autopsies on the nine killed revealed 30 bullet wounds, a quarter of them in the back — than to let the blame fall on the Israeli state.

He probably imagines that by refusing Israeli participation in the inquiry, he is ruining its credibility. Not in this case, he isn’t; the deaths speak for themselves. And just as Kent State destroyed U.S. popular support for the Vietnam War and Bloody Sunday killed the myth of a benevolent British army protecting Catholics from Protestants in Northern Ireland, the events on the Mavi Marmara will ultimately end the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip.

• Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

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