Sunday, June 6, 2010

Piracy is a bad idea.

Whereas the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico remains the dominant news story of the past week or so, events in the waters off the Gaza strip also command attention. There have been two separate rounds of Israeli attempts to thwart relief ships attempting to break the blockade on marine access to Gaza and deliver everything from medicine to toys to cement. The second round, involving the ship the Rachel Corrie, went more or less “as planned”—both sides emerge with some dignity, and it’s even possible that the relief materials will find their way to the suffering people of Gaza. Let’s consider that first encounter, however.

OK: background, caveats, and common ground. Can we all stipulate a few things?

1). The Israeli government has reason to be nervous that Hamas is in charge in Gaza.

2). Hamas is the democratically elected government of that region. (Remember, they defeated Yasser Arafat’s Fatah party, so it’s not like there’s a lot of pro-Israeli sentiment in the area.)

3). Uncritical acceptance of the testimony of absolutely anyone associated with these events is folly.

4). As Jon Stewart put it, “whatever you may think of the respective leaderships, the Israelis or Hamas, whatever gods you pray to or whatever direction you may pray to them in, if you can't even look at Gaza and agree that there is suffering there that needs to be alleviated, no matter who’s to blame for it, then your heart is so dead that tourists flock there to float their backs in it." (This in response to Charles Krauthammer’s commentary—described aptly by Stewart as “the stupidest f*ing thing anyone has ever said about the Middle East, ever”—that there is no humanitarian crisis being addressed by the flotilla: “there’s no one starving in Gaza.”)

5). No matter how sensible some parts of the blockade may be, you just look silly if you’re spending your time stopping shipments of wheelchairs and Pokemon toys. Indeed, the list of what is banned and what isn’t would strike most observers as more than a little arbitrary. Edmund Sanders of the Los Angeles Times, citing Gisha, an Israeli advocacy group which opposes the blockade, writes that “Cinnamon is allowed, but coriander is banned…. Oil is OK, but not vinegar. Canned fruit is prohibited, but not canned vegetables.” Perhaps there is some internal consistency here which I am too dim-witted to comprehend?

6). If you’re trying to run a military blockade, there’s likely to be trouble.

7). The people on the boats that comprised the flotilla included some pro-Hamas and/or anti-Israeli agitators.

8). The people on the boats that comprised the flotilla included some humanitarians who didn’t give a damn about who had done what to whom, only that people needed help.

9). The headline-making events of recent days occurred in international waters when Israeli commandos attempted to board the ships of the relief flotilla.

10). The loss of nine lives, however risky the behavior of the victims may have been, is indeed tragic. Even the Aristolelian in me is satisfied, as what transpired was completely within the realm of human agency—no “Act of God,” here.

N.B. I have tried, in the above descriptions, to avoid loaded language (with the exceptions of agreeing that Krauthammer’s comments were stupid even by his standards and questioning the rationale behind what is quarantined and what isn’t). I realize, however, that words like “humanitarians” and “victims” aren’t necessarily neutral.

Let me stipulate further that I think the blockade is more of a bad idea than a good one, in terms of both policy and politics. In policy terms, it aggravates an already bad situation. Isolation imposed from the outside—whether we’re talking about North Korea or Cuba or apartheid-era South Africa—tends to affect the have-nots more than the haves. Applying sanctions might make us feel good that we’re doing something, but such a strategy seldom succeeds in effecting the kind of change in policy positions it sets out to accomplish. What does happen, however, is that the general population suffers even more than they had previously.

Which brings us to the political realm… when Hamas first came to power, I wrote in my old blog that it was “put up or shut up time for them.” They were faced with two choices if they wanted to retain control: govern (and govern well) or renounce the allegedly democratic principles which brought them to power. Or so I thought at the time. I overlooked the possibility of an Israeli initiative which would allow Hamas to pass the blame—legitimately, or with at least a claim to legitimacy—to the very government they so vehemently oppose. One of the central claims of Hamas is that Israel is an oppressive regime relative to Palestinians; legitimizing those claims doesn’t strike me as a particularly shrewd political strategy on the part of the Israeli government.

Any problem in Gaza, especially in terms of infrastructure and social services, now can reasonably be ascribed to the effects of the blockade rather than to Hamas’s own failures to provide for their constituents. (I am reminded of one of my favorite plays, Largo Desolato by Václav Havel, who knew something of political repression: in that play the dissident intellectual protagonist is broken by the removal of the threat of being sent to the Czech equivalent of the Gulag.) So no, I don’t think the blockade is a good idea. But I do understand the rationale for it and the fact that similar policies have been adopted by other governments, including our own, on many occasions. In other words, reasonable people can disagree about the blockade per se.

And, as suggested by #3 above, we’re not likely to get a lot of clarity from either eye-witness testimony or heavily-edited videotape on many of the details of what, exactly, happened Monday, especially on the Turkish-flagged Mavi Marmara, on which nine passengers were killed, allegedly for attacking Israeli commandos. The passengers were or weren’t armed, the soldiers did or did not start firing before even reaching the deck of the ship, and so on. Moreover, while it is possible that all those killed were actively confronting the Israeli soldiers, history suggests otherwise. Remember Kent State, where one of the victims was an ROTC cadet walking to class over 100 yards from the nearest National Guardsman? Not exactly an aggressive anti-war protester there.

But let’s accept, for the sake of argument, the essence of the Israeli government’s argument. The soldiers boarded the ship, were attacked by the passengers, and defended themselves with lethal force. All the dead were among those employing knives, projectiles, or whatever else, to prevent the IDF forces from taking control of the ship. Even with that spin, we are left with one very central question: SO FREAKING WHAT?

No one disputes that these events took place not in Israeli waters but in the open sea. What happened, then, is that armed men attempted to seize control of a legal vessel in international waters. Maybe the vocabulary changed when I wasn’t paying attention, but I seem to remember a term for that: piracy. Then, having shot up the joint when the passengers resisted, they claimed they were attacked. As MJ Rosenberg writes, “This is like a carjacker complaining to the police that the driver bashed him with a crowbar that was under the seat. Neither carjackers nor hijackers should expect their victims to acquiesce peacefully.” Note: had these events occurred in Israeli waters, they wouldn’t have been any more intelligent or less tragic, but they might at least have been construed as legal.

One of the dead turns out to be a young man with joint Turkish and American citizenship, Furkan Dogan, who was shot five times, four in the head. I can’t improve on James Wolcott’s commentary: “I'm not a trained commando, unlike so many others with blogs to their names, but four shots to the head strikes me as possibly a trifle de trop.”

The worst case scenario in real terms for Israel involves additional tension in its relationship with the US (its principal ally) and with Turkey (the closest thing it had to an ally in the region). Israel’s armed forces and the government that commands them are portrayed as trigger-happy ghouls. The policies of Prime Minister Netanyahu (in particular) with respect to Gaza stand to be condemned by the international community writ large rather than simply by those states already opposed to Israel. That Israel is often unjustly isolated internationally is no doubt true; that in this instance they deserve to be ostracized is, to me, equally undeniable.

I disagree—around the edges, at least—with Rosenberg, who says “the intention of the activists on board the ships was to break the Israeli blockade. Delivering the embargoed goods was incidental. In other words, the activists were like the civil rights demonstrators who sat down at segregated lunch counters throughout the South and refused to leave until they were served. Their goal was not really to get breakfast. It was to end segregation.” I think breaking (if by “breaking” we mean “ending” as opposed to “circumventing”) the blockade may indeed be the principal medium-term objective, but that doesn’t minimize the shorter-term intention of making sure relief aid does in fact reach its intended recipients, or indeed the longer-term goal of achieving both autonomy and some reasonable standard of living for the Palestinian people.

Even the best case scenario for the Israelis is a PR disaster, made worse rather than better by the excuse-making of Netanyahu and his minions in the media, especially in this country: because the arguments are so palpably fallacious. Look, mistakes happen. Sometimes they’re completely honest mistakes (that umpire’s call that cost a pitcher a perfect game, for example), sometimes they’re less innocent (e.g., the intervention of a school principal into the artistic qualities of a mural championing environmental issues) but reasonable people forgive human frailty in all its manifestations, even in situations like this, in which lives were lost. Provided, that is, that there’s an apology issued with some hint of actual remorse: someone was sorry for what s/he’d done, not just for being caught. This is why everyone is angry at BP right now: no rational person believes Tony Hayward or his minions give a crap about anything but their corporate profits.

But Netanyahu does Hayward one better: he doesn’t even bother with the insincere contrition; he actually defends the screw-up. And let’s be clear: the best case scenario from the Israeli perspective is that they sent out commando teams carrying military-grade weaponry, but provided the soldiers with neither the tactics nor the provisions to employ non-lethal force. Indeed, they apparently never even considered the possibility that people willing to run a blockade might be willing to resist an assault against them. In other words, this was not merely a public relations and political disaster, it was a catastrophe in military terms.

I find it curious (but not, alas, surprising), then, that so many in this country are willing to defend what to me is at best a variation on Kent State: an over-reaction perpetrated by under-trained kids with assault rifles. I know of literally no one in this country who defends everything our own government does—go ahead, name someone who endorses warrantless wiretaps, the bank bailout, Obama’s healthcare bill, and the federal government’s response to both Hurricane Katrina and the BP disaster. But there is a bizarre little alliance of many Republicans (especially but not exclusively the Religious Right) and some American Jews who are prepared to defend any action of the Israeli government, whichever party happens to be in charge there. Witness Shmuel Rosner, writing in Slate: “The soldiers were surprised by a mob; they saw their friends being lynched; they acted as any soldier would have and should have acted. To save their fellow soldiers, they opened fire.” Lynched?!? Give me a damned break. The guys with the assault rifles who attacked the ship were being “lynched” by civilians armed with… uh… jack-knives and hammers? Curiously enough, the victims of this “lynching” sustained two “moderate” injuries; the alleged perpetrators: nine dead and multiple injuries. Somewhere, perhaps, there is a parallel universe in which Mr. Rosner’s argument is coherent. I pray I never visit there.

But amidst the nattering and the silly condemnations of President Obama—not for an egregiously tepid response but for the temerity to suggest that the slaughter of civilians (including an American) is a “tragedy”—there is at least one voice of reason… Dennis Kucinich. I urge you to read his letter to President Obama in its entirety, but here’s the most important section: “It is not acceptable to repeatedly violate international law. It is not acceptable to shoot and kill innocent civilians. It is not acceptable to commit an act of aggression against another U.S. ally. It is not acceptable to continue a blockade which denies humanitarian relief. It is not acceptable to heighten tensions in a region while the United States continues to put so much blood and treasure on the line.” Now, why is it that someone as ethically clear-headed, rhetorically skilled, and passionately humanitarian as Kucinich can’t attract votes even from Democrats at the national level? Oh, yeah, that’s right—he’s kind of funny-looking.


SGGrossman said...

Thanks for this thoughtful and eloquent article, Rick — you find a lot of common ground here, and articulate it well. May your words travel far

manjushri924 said...

Follow-up: an article in the Guardian newspaper suggests that Mr. Dogan was not, as had been widely reported, shot four times in the head. He was, however, shot five times from a distance of less than 45 cm (about 17 inches), including in the face, the back, and the back of the head. I'm not sure which is more disturbing: the rumor or the reality.