Memoriable Day Siege On The High Seas
There is no other place in the world today that generates as much controversy and debate as the Gaza Strip; the slim coastal enclave smaller than the island of Manhattan that is home to approximately 1.5 million Palestinians.
The Gaza Strip has been governed by Hamas- a U.S. and Israeli designated terrorist organization- since 2007, when its fighters drove Mahmoud Abbas’ forces from the territory in a convincing display of coordinated force. Sensing that a ferocious adversary now controlled a quasi-state right next door, the Israeli Government responded to the takeover with a brand new set of economic restrictions, including a naval blockade off the Gaza coast and a ban on certain materials. The sale and distribution of steel, cement, and other construction materials are prohibited inside the Strip, although an impressive system of makeshift underground tunnels along the Egyptian border has diminished the effectiveness of the entire blockade. Certain foods like jam, avocados, spices, and chocolates are also confiscated by Israeli authorities and denied to ordinary Palestinians living under Hamas rule.
The Gaza siege was supposed to put pressure on Hamas officials from the bottom up. By making life virtually unbearable, there was a possibility that Palestinians living inside the Strip would revolt against the Islamist government out of both anger and desperation. But unfortunately, after three years of the blockade, the objectives that Israel has sought to accomplish remain distant. Hamas is still the primary authority in Gaza politics, Mahmoud Abbas has been unable to take the initiative and draw popular support away from the Hamas Movement, and weapons still make their way into the hands of Hamas through a sophisticated smuggling network. In fact, if this morning’s tragic loss of life is any indication, the fortification of the Gaza Strip has actually given Jerusalem an ever greater headache.
In case you haven’t heard the news, Israeli Navy commandos intercepted a convoy of ships that were attempting to make their way to the Gaza Strip. At the onset, it seemed like an ordinary operation from an Israeli perspective: in accordance with the embargo policy, Israeli forces would stop the ship from entering Gaza and deport those responsible. But within the few minutes of the operation, ordinary quickly succumbed to catastrophic.
The ships were carrying thousands of pounds of civilian materials for the people of Gaza, mostly supplies that could be used to reconstruct homes that were damaged by the 2008-2009 war between Israel and Hamas militants. The ships were also being commandeered by humanitarian workers and pro-Palestinian activists, all of whom view the Israeli siege as an unjust act of “collective punishment.”
If the activists were arrested and deported by Israeli authorities, perhaps we wouldn’t be talking about this event. After all, the Israeli Government has thwarted a number of civilian campaigns in the past, even if the humanitarian mission is well-planned and moderate in size.
This time it was different. 14 people were killed and about 30 were injured when Israeli commandos stormed the ships at nightfall, making this one of the deadliest naval operations along the Israeli coast in decades. So far, most of the victims have been described by hospital officials as Turkish nationals.
To say the very least, the loss of life is unfortunate, particularly when similar operations have been dealt with in a much more peaceful and professional manner (intercepting boats destined for the Gaza Strip is a fairly routine occurrence for the Israeli Navy). Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli Foreign Ministry claim that the commandos were firing in self defense after activists wielded knives as they tried to subdue the convoy. The Arab media is reporting the story quite differently, stating that Israeli soldiers fired indiscriminately at unarmed civilians. I honestly don’t know what to believe or who to believe at this point, because events are still unfolding and everyone has their own interpretations about what happened “in the moment.” But what is clear is that Israel must now find some way to manage another diplomatic snafu.
So far, Turkey has recalled its ambassador from Israel in a show of protest over the deadly raid, calling it a “murder conducted by a state;” the European Union is calling the attack an indiscriminate show of force; U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is vehemently ordering a full and detailed investigation into what actually happened; the Israeli P.M. cancelled his trip to Washington to cool the fallout; protests have erupted across much of the Arab world; and the U.N. Security Council called an emergency session to draft a resolution expressing its strong displeasure.
To label this as a crisis is perhaps mollifying its significance. Israel is already facing challenges from the international community on a number of fronts, whether its settlement activity in the West Bank or covert security missions in allied nations. Before this development unfolded, the Turkish-Israeli relationship was slowly getting back to normal after a pretty extensive period of frosty exchanges. And indirect peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority were finally kicking off after eighteen months of stalemate.
This episode on the high seas has the potential of jeopardizing each and every one of these improvements. Whether it will or not remains to be seen (Israeli authorities will undoubtedly try to lift themselves out of the water in the hopes of avoiding the shark). Yet even with this uncertainty, international condemnation from Europeans and Arabs alike is not the start that Prime Minister Netanyahu was looking for.
Note: The Obama administration is taking a much more cautious approach to the entire ordeal, telling the press corps that the United States “expressed deep regret at the loss of life.”
-Daniel R. DePetris