This Monday, Israeli forces boarded and captured the “Gaza Freedom Flotilla”, a convoy of ships carrying food and medicine to the besieged territory of Gaza. Nine activists were killed, many more activists and some Israeli soldiers were injured.
Gaza has been under a near-total blockade since 2007, though Israel formally ended their occupation in 2005 and denies that their near total control of the land, sea, and air borders, complete blockade (save for limited humanitarian aid imports), and complete prohibition of any kind of military development qualifies them for any of the responsibilities of an occupying power. It’s not clear at all that the blockade is legal under international law.
Meanwhile, the organizers of the flotilla had a stated intention of breaking the Israeli blockade, but they were sailing under the Turkish flag (the lead ship was a Turkish ship, the convoy departed from a Turkish port, though the vessels in the convoy were from a bunch of different countries) and attacked in international waters. The activists claim that Israeli soldiers fired on them before boarding, Israel claims the soldiers only returned fire after coming under attack (with improvised weapons and their own weapons).
There’s a lot of interesting stuff going on here. Legally, the act was either a crime commited by Israeli soldiers on a Turkish vessel or an act of war by Israel against a Turkish ship. Israel argues that the flotilla presented a danger to Israel that justified acting in international waters instead of waiting. Turkey is understandably upset that an ostensibly friendly country expects them to ignore such a provocation, and is threatening to send a naval escort with the next such attempt. It’s brinkmanship, it’s not clear that the Turkish navy would stand by while Israel attacked a Turkish ship in international waters, not clear that Israel would wait until the ship entered their territory (since that would demonstrate that their decision-making was affected by something as trivial as the Turkish navy), and it’s not clear that an actual naval battle between warships wouldn’t lead to a war. Which would be an awkward situation for the United States, to say the least, given that Israel and Turkey are both allies.
Brad Hicks, one of my favorite essayists, has an excellent analysis of the incident.
An interesting question is to what extent did the flotilla activists succeed in their goals. They failed to break the blockade, and the supplies were not delivered because Hamas would rather make political points than accept another shipment of aid. Then again, the flotilla protesters clearly shared that objective, they didn’t accept Israel’s offer to allow the supplies in through an Israeli port. Another shipment of supplies won’t end the chronic food and water shortages in Gaza, won’t restore the destroyed economy. So here’s an idea that’s worth highlighting:
Idea #2: Nonviolent direct action succeeds when it is disruptive politically or economically. Getting attention isn’t enough.
Was the flotilla disruptive? It’s certainly caused a lot of noise. Turkey aside, Ireland is pulling out the diplomatic threats over a lagging Irish vessel following the flotilla.
But brinkmanship and talk are nothing new, actual war or significant sanctions wouldn’t be. The former is (fortunately) unlikely, the latter… well, the relevant question is what exactly would it take to cool unconditional US support for Israel? (Note that attacking a US navy ship was not sufficient to cool US-Israel relations.)