By Richard Irvine
Recently I often think I have entered a parallel universe. One where the illegal is legal; the victim the criminal; where Goliath defends himself from David.
Palestinians have of course endured this experience for the last 100 years, but in recent weeks Israel’s denunciations of the upcoming Gaza Flotilla, coming on the heels of its pious condemnation of the dead refugees on the Golan Heights have stretched incredulity to breaking point.
When Israel killed 14 unarmed refugees on Nakba Day and then out did itself in a repeat performance three weeks later, I expected the international community to speak out; to condemn, to reiterate the promise of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that everyone has the right to leave and return to their own country. I waited in vain.
Over the mumblings of the Quartet, and Ban Ki-moon’s pathetic call for “restraint,” the most strident voice of course was Israel’s. Outraged at having to kill unarmed civilians, the turkey shoot of refugees became transformed into a defence of Israeli sovereignty, the refugees aggressors – guilty of the egregious provocation of attempting to exercise their human rights.
Today, as the Gaza Flotilla approaches, the same transformation of unarmed activists into dangerous and irresponsible extremists is already well under way. Whilst Israel rehearses its naval operations, it also ratchets up its diplomatic and media offensive. Israel’s UN Ambassador, Ron Prosor, ominously repeats the language used before last year’s massacre; declaring the flotilla “a provocation” and calling upon the international community to do all in its power to prevent it.
Omitted of course from this discourse is the statement from the International Committee of the Red Cross that the blockade is illegal; or that from the former head of UNRWA in Gaza, John Ging, who last year called for activists to break the blockade. Indeed, forgotten already is the fact that Israel’s previous assault upon the Mavi Marmara was both illegal, and, according to the UN Human Rights Council report, murderous.
In other words, all the objective legal context necessary for the public and the international community to judge the actions of the activists and Israel is absent. Instead what is presented is a narrative of Israel under attack – indeed of Israel under siege. As Proser says, “The goal of the flotilla is not to give humanitarian aid but to provoke and aid a radical political agenda.”
That radical agenda being the enforcement of international and human rights law.
And of course Israel has had its successes. The Turkish charity IHH has pulled out of the flotilla, most probably under pressure from the Turkish government which in light of the Syrian uprising appears keen to repair relationships with Israel. Even more concerning however has been the pusillanimous appeal by Ban Ki-moon to Middle East states to do everything they can to prevent the flotilla (28/05/2011).
Similarly Israel’s champions in the media have not been slow to trumpet the statements of its politicians and smear the flotilla activists as far leftists, anti-Semites or terrorists; Israeli Admiral Eliezer Marom calling it “a hate flotilla whose only goals are to clash with IDF soldiers, create media provocation and to delegitimize the State of Israel.” (Ha’aretz, 19/06/2011)
Sadly, amongst all this media storm, what is being delegitimized here is not Israel but international law. To my knowledge, no country has issued a statement warning Israel not to attack it citizens, but several have warned their citizens not to take part in the flotilla and to avoid all travel to Gaza. This sends an ominous message. In the event of an Israeli attack it puts the blame for activist casualties on the activists themselves. In effect it is governments diplomatically washing their hands whilst giving Israel a readymade alibi to be as violent as it chooses. A phenomenon, which in the context of Gaza, is anything but unusual.
Yet International Humanitarian Law requires that all States both “respect and ensure respect” for the laws of war; the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that all States promote “universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms.” Therefore, when governments wash their hands of Gaza and of the activists who are seeking to aid its people, they are also washing their hands of these commitments.
So let’s see the Gaza Flotilla as the challenge it really is – it is not about whether a few ships can successfully reach Gaza; or about whether some tonnes of aid can be delivered; nor is it about the delegitimization of Israel – in fact, it is about the most fundamental issue of all – whether the rule of law or the rule of might should prevail. In the end its not just the siege of Gaza the flotilla activists are challenging, but the siege of international law. So yes I agree with Ron Proser, it is “a radical political agenda.”
– Richard Irvine is a Belfast, Ireland-based writer. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.