This Month's news was dominated by the fatal Israeli assault on the humanitarian aid convoy to Gaza, its consequences and the political fallout.
Also, the struggle for east Jerusalem continues this month.
Israel's attack on the 'Freedom Flotilla'
The Freedom Flotilla - a fleet of eight ships carrying over 10,000 tonnes of aid to the Strip aimed to deliver its cargo, break the naval blockade and draw international attention to the situation. Israel claims that there was no humanitarian crisis in Gaza. It condemned the flotilla as "an attempt at violent propaganda against Israel, and Israel will not allow a violation of its sovereignty at sea, in the air, or on land" despite that the flotilla was headed for Gaza and not Israel.
The Israeli attack was conducted in the early morning of the 31st March while still dark approximately 60km off the coast of Gaza in international waters. The timing and location was unexpected and intended to shock those onboard. All satellite communication and ship radars were cut before the attack. What followed has been described as a 'massacre' and a war crime; 9 Turkish citizens were killed, the majority of whom were shot in the head at close range or in the back. Dozens more were injured.
Israel swiftly mounted a PR offensive however; the incidents evoked international condemnation and outrage at Israel's excessive and disproportionate use of force and led to demands to completely lift the blockade on Gaza. France, Sweden, Denmark and Greece all summoned Israel's ambassadors for explanations. Ban Ki-moon condemned the attack and expressed shock calling for a multinational inquiry however, the Security Council statement stopped short of condemning Israel.
The incident has been called 'an act of inhumane state terrorism' and renowned human rights lawyers, including Daniel Machover, have asserted that Israeli actions were almost certainly a breach of international law, as such; Turkey has the right to take charge of any criminal investigations. There has been a sharp down turn in European public opinion about Israel along with calls for sanctions against it. The incident has drawn massive attention to both the situation in Gaza and the Palestinian cause with many more joining the boycott effort. The calls for the Israeli government to engage with the democratically elected Hamas have increased. The Free Gaza movement said it would send more ships to challenge the siege as did Iran. Egypt was shamed into opening the Rafah border crossing with Gaza while Israel has promise to 'ease' the siege.
Israel's rejection of multinational inquiry
Despite global condemnation over the flotilla attack and pressure to lift the siege, the UN proposed international commission into the attack was promptly rejected by Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu.
Israel announced that its investigations would seek to establish whether the blockade and the raid complied with standards of international law and to examine the presence of "extremist" elements aboard the Mavi Marmara. However, it stressed that soldiers involved would be questioned "neither in Hebrew nor in English." The White House gave approval for the Israeli formula saying it met the required standards.
The format has received widespread criticism and has been dismissed by many not least the Turks whose Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, has repeatedly demanded a UN investigation stating "We have no trust at all that Israel, a country that has carried out such an attack on a civilian convoy in international waters, will conduct an impartial investigation. To have a defendant acting simultaneously as both prosecutor and judge is not compatible with any principle of law." On the 14th, the EU also raised questions about the inquiry's credibility with Tony Blair admitting that its makeup would trigger "strong political debate." The EU announced it would have wished for more and that there would have to be sustained pressure for it to be "independent, transparent and credible."
Israel's blockade of Gaza
Since the flotilla attack, particularly within the EU, focus has shifted to the blockade. David Miliband described it as "a stain on policy right across the Middle East". "I think there have been a series of deadly and self-defeating actions by successive Israeli governments in respect of Gaza." Both Obama and the US secretary of State described it as unsustainable with Obama calling for a "new conceptual framework".
In an attempt to deflect global condemnation over the attack, its refusal to submit to an international inquiry or to conduct a thorough and impartial investigation, Israel decided to pursue compromise measures. It maintains it will keep the naval blockade in place while the land crossings have been "eased". Egypt has promised to open the border at Rafah daily with restrictions on those allowed through. No Hamas official will be allowed to cross.
EU foreign ministers were expected to adopt a robust position on the blockade. The Spanish said they would argue that the EU should demand an end of the blockade and extend all its political and diplomatic capacity to reach that goal. However, Middle East Envoy, Tony Blair, said he saw no prospect for a full lifting and pressed for an 'easing'. He also said he thought it would be possible to get a role back for the EU & the PA in the way some crossings were monitored.
Breakdown of Turkish-Israeli relations
Turkey's normally good relations with Israel were put under massive strain following the Flotilla incident. The Turkish public, outraged by the Gaza war, were incandescent over the attack. Turkey has demanded an apology, compensation, a full international investigation into the incident and the full lifting of the siege on Gaza. Observers assert the unlikelihood of its demands being met. Israel's foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has categorically stated that "it is inconceivable that we should apologize to the Turkish government". Instead, he and others in his cabinet have begun comparing Turkey to Iran hinting that it is headed toward Islamic extremism.
Helen Thomas & US Censorship
Helen Thomas, a member of the White House press corps since 1961, was immediately retired this month, just short of her 90th birthday, following comments she made on camera about Jews in Palestine. During her time, Helen was a trail blazer and became a liberal icon known for her public run inns with the Bush Administration. The White House itself weighed in on the remarks after high level calls for her removal, clearly distancing itself from them and branding them 'offensive and reprehensible'. The White House Correspondent's Association also condemned her remarks as indefensible.
Helen remarked that Jews should "get the hell out of Palestine" and "go home" to Poland and Germany. Despite posting an apology for her comments on her website, references to Germany and Poland were considered by many to be way over the top. It was claimed her comments amounted to 'religious cleansing' and she has been branded an anti-Semitic bigot long hostile to Israel.
The US Perspective
This has been a good month in the New York Times and its sister publication, the International Herald Tribune, with a number of articles that exercise the readers' grey cells and, in the process, give some hope to those who criticise the allegedly blanket pro-Israel bias of the US media.
In "Egypt's waning influence", Alastair Crooke got it just about right when he wrote, "The cause of the Palestinians is gradually passing out of the hands of [Egyptian President Hosni) Mubarak and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia... Yet Egypt refuses to budge in these changed circumstances even as the shift in the balance of regional power toward the northern tier of Middle Eastern states — Syria, Turkey, Iran, Qatar and Lebanon — gathers pace."
Egypt, says Mr. Crooke, "increasingly has only its memory of past grandeur on which to stand. In contemporary terms its influence has been on the slide for some time." That will come as a bit of a shock for the Egyptian government whose only real power, says the "former British intelligence officer", comes about because it is "Gaza's neighbour". The country's "acquiescence to the siege of Gaza — encouraged by President Abbas in the West Bank" and "dogged support for Israel" has "given Mubarak his stranglehold over Palestinian issues". That stranglehold is evident by the control of aid being allowed through the border crossing at Rafah and limited access for people on both sides of the border, despite Egypt's claim that it has opened the crossing in the wake of the Israeli attack on the Freedom Flotilla in May.
This theme is picked up by Thomas L Friedman in his "Letter from Istanbul", in which he claims that Turkey, post-Flotilla incident, is "looking more South", where it has "found another vacuum — no leadership in the Arab-Muslim world. Egypt is adrift. Saudi Arabia is asleep. Syria is too small. And Iraq is too fragile".
Turkey's prime minister, says Mr. Friedman, is suddenly popular in the Muslim world, "not because he is promoting a synthesis of democracy, modernity and Islam, but because he is loudly bashing Israel over its occupation and praising Hamas instead of the more responsible Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, which is actually building the foundations of a Palestinian state". In apartheid-style Bantustans created by Israel's occupation with its illegal settlements, settler-only roads and the crazy Wall that have sliced the West Bank into slivers of non-contiguous territory; Mr. Friedman didn't say that.
However, he is sure that, "There is nothing wrong with criticizing Israel's human rights abuses in the [occupied] territories..." At which point you are expecting a very large "but" and you don't have long to wait; just when we thought that Thomas L Friedman was getting soft on Israel, he slips in his caveat which translates roughly thus: if you think the Israelis are bad, look at the other lot! "But it is very troubling when Erdogan decries Israelis as killers and, at the same time, warmly receives in Ankara Sudan's president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity". Of course, senior Israelis also been accused of committing war crimes and possibly crimes against humanity in Gaza by Judge Richard Goldstone in his report to the UN, a slightly relevant point overlooked by Mr. Friedman. In Letter from Istanbul Part 2, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist claimed that what we are seeing in Turkey and Prime Minister Erdogan's support for the Palestinians – although he says it is only Hamas – is the "fight for Turkey's soul", which makes "the secular and moderate Muslim forces in Turkey... alarmed; the moderate Arab regimes... alarmed [and] the Americans... alarmed". In short, Turkey's stand for justice and human rights is alarming everyone who is on side with Israel, which gives hope for all reasonable people across the world.
And that is a growing sector, with Tony Judt drawing attention to "Israel without clichés". The clichés in question are from "the usual suspects", by which Mr. Judt means those who make "tired accusations and ritual defences" of Israel. In an article that is both informative and entertaining, he demolishes some of the more ridiculous claims about Israel which are used frequently to try to justify its illegal activities.
"Unsurprisingly," he writes, "the state [of Israel] has acquired pathological habits. Of these, the most damaging is its habitual resort to force. Because this worked for so long... Israel finds it difficult to conceive of other ways to respond." The Israelis often claim that "there is no one to talk to." And here you know that, like Thomas L Friedman, Tony Judt is just itching to insert a "but", and he doesn't disappoint. "But there is. As American officials privately acknowledge, sooner or later Israel (or someone) will have to talk to Hamas. From French Algeria through South Africa to the Provisional I.R.A., the story repeats itself: the dominant power denies the legitimacy of the "terrorists," thereby strengthening their hand; then it secretly negotiates with them; finally, it concedes power, independence or a place at the table. Israel will negotiate with Hamas: the only question is why not now." Hands up those who thought you'd ever see that written in the New York Times.
Last but not least, is Nicholas D Kristof's "The two sides of a barbed-wire fence" in which he travels to Hebron in the occupied West Bank and compares the facilities of Jewish settlers and local Palestinians. Inserting his own by now apparently de rigueur "but", he sets the tone in the first paragraph. "But one more blunt truth must be acknowledged. The occupation is morally repugnant."
Visiting the village of Umm Al-Kheir with an Israeli human rights activist, Mr. Kristof is told that the chickens in the neighbouring Jewish settlement's "gleaming, electrified poultry barn... get more electricity and water than all the Palestinians around here."
He goes on to draw attention to the fact that "the biggest theft of Arab land in the Middle East has nothing to do with Palestinians" it is "Morocco's robbery of the resource-rich Western Sahara from the people who live there". Mr. Kristof then adds, "None of that changes the ugly truth that our ally, Israel, is using American military support to maintain an occupation that is both oppressive and unjust. Israel has eased checkpoints this year — a real improvement in quality of life — but the system is intrinsically malignant."
A good month indeed. Let's hope it continues and that the American people start to understand the true nature of the Israeli state to which their government gives massive quantities of their hard-earned tax dollars every year.
And in other news…
The ongoing campaign against Arab MKs
- The Palestinian Arab member of the Israel Knesset, Hanin Zou'bi Zou'bi was on board the main cargo ship, the Mavi Marmara, which was attacked on 31 May. She witnessed the bloodshed that saw many humanitarian aid workers wounded or killed by Israeli forces.
- A few days after the assault and detention of the aid flotilla, MK Zou'bi addressed the Knesset in which she called the actions of the Israeli navy a 'pirate military operation'. She further demanded to know why the Israeli government had tried to establish a media blackout on the affair. She was heckled for speaking up and called a 'traitor.' Since then she has also had serious death threats made against her and fellow members of the Balad party.
- What followed in the Knesset was criticised by many in both the political and media circles. Knesset members held an emergency committee meeting to determine MK Zou'bi's role in the flotilla which eventually resulted in the Knesset stripping Zou'bi of her parliamentary privileges for the 'crime of working against government policy'. One Israeli MK condemned the committee's actions stating 'Limiting the freedom of expression and narrowing the Knesset members' steps is a dangerous, slippery slope, which will end in tyranny and the nullification of the minority'.
- MEMO will be hosting MKs Hanin Zoubi, Talab Sana and Dr Jamal Zahalka in a special public seminar to highlight the conditions for Palestinian Arabs living in Israel on Wednesday 28 July 2010.
- July 1st 2010: Spanish toy stores remove Israeli game, Rummikub, from its shelves due events on the flotilla as one of the managers said '…we see what is going on, and we must be sensitive to the social situations'.
- June 30th 2010: The Methodist Church of Britain voted to boycott Israeli-produced goods and services from the West Bank because of Israel's 'illegal occupation of Palestinian Lands', becoming the first major Christian denomination to official adopt such a policy.
- June 29th 2010: The largest British public sector union with around 1.4 million members, UNISON, has passed a motion calling for a 'complete boycott of Israel and for the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador to the country'.
- June 23rd 2010: Swedish dockworkers launched a week-long boycott of cargo to and from Israel to protest against the violent raid on the Gaza aid flotilla. Eleven Swedes took part in the flotilla, including crime writer Henning Mankell.
- June 15th 2010: Norwegian Ports Union decided to join their Swedish counterparts in boycotting all Israeli ships for two weeks.
- June 7th 2010: US band call off their debut performance in Israel – Pixies cancel Israel gig following flotilla raid.
- South African trade unions have called for the BDS campaign to continue and denounced the siege of Gaza and the apartheid wall in the West Bank.
- Palestinian boycott of Israeli settlement goods forces Israeli factories to cut production
- Oslo, Norway: The old Norway district passed a motion calling for the boycott of Israeli goods with one lawmaker stating 'we no longer accept the illegal blockade of Gaza and the occupation of Palestine.' More districts are to follow suit.
- Controversial new housing plans to raze 22 Palestinian homes in Silwan, East Jerusalem, were approved by the Jerusalem City Council as part of a major redevelopment proposal for the area. The houses will be razed to pave way for a new tourist centre as part of a major judaisation drive of East Jerusalem.
- The US State Department said the plans 'undermines trust' and ultimately hinders any progress in the peace talks
- UN chief Ban Ki-Moon has called the plans 'contrary to international law' and called on the Israeli government to 'ensure provocative step[s] [were] not taken' to aggravate the situation further.
- Many Israeli commentators are highly critical of the plans stating that rather than easing tensions in the region they would only work to inflate the problem.
- In an attempt to save face after their disastrous flotilla raid, Netanyahu's government stated they would 'ease' the siege on Gaza allowing more goods into the besieged territory.
- Operation 'Damage Control' was initiated soon after the botched raid that left nine humanitarian aid workers dead backfired.
- As Jonathan Cook wrote 'With Israel responsible for killing nine civilians aboard a Gaza-bound aid flotilla three weeks ago, the world has finally begun to wonder what purpose the siege serves. Did those nine really need to die to stop coriander, chocolate and children's toys from reaching Gaza? And, as Israel awaits other flotillas, will more need to be executed to enforce the policy?'
- Despite these claims, 3,500 products remain banned. In one report, a Gaza based NGO, The Popular Committee against the siege stated 'only 10% of the original list of forbidden material are allowed to enter Gaza' and claimed that the 'easing of the siege' was only a propaganda gimmick.