Archive | July, 2011

Warfare Without Limits: A Darkening Human Horizon

27 Jul images-4


There are several pressures that push war in the direction of the absolute, and imperil the human future. Perhaps, the foremost of these is emergence, use, retention, and proliferation of nuclear weapons, as well as the development of biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction. Since Hiroshima and Nagasaki there have been several close calls involving heightened dangers of wars fought with nuclear weapons, especially associated with the Cold War rivalry, none more serious than the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. To entrust such weaponry to the vagaries of political leadership and the whims governmental institutions seems like a Mt. Everest of human folly, and yet the present challenges to nuclearism remain modest and marginal despite the collapse of the deterrence rationale that seemed plausible to many during the confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States.

 

Underneath the tendency to develop for use whatever weapons and tactics that technology can provide is the fragmented political identities of a world divided into sovereign states. The inhabitants of these states of greatly varying size, capabilities, and vulnerabilities, have long been indoctrinated to view their own state through the idolatrous eyes of nationalism that view the extermination of the enemy as acceptable if necessary for national security or even desirable to satisfy national ambitions. The ideology of nationalism, nurturing the values of unquestioning patriotism, have led to an orientation that can be described as secular fundamentalism, vindicating militarist worldviews however dysfunctional given the risks and limits associated with gaining desired political ends by relying on military superiority. The crime of treason reinforces the absolutist claims of the secular state by disallowing defenses based on conscience, law, and belief.  

 

As I have pointed out in other contexts, the militarily superior side has rarely prevailed in an armed conflict since the end of World War II unless also able to command the moral and legal heights wherein are located the symbols of legitimacy. The political failures of the colonial powers despite their military dominance provides many bloody illustrations of this trend of miltarist frustration that did not exist until the middle of the last century. Because of entrenched bureaucratic and economic interests (‘the military-industrial-media complex’), the experience is denied, military solutions for conflicts continue to be preferred, and futile recourse to war goes on and on.

 

One further check on the excesses of warfare is supposedly provided by the inhibiting role of conscience, the ethical component of the human sensibility. This sentiment was powerfully and memorably expressed by some lines in the Bertolt Brecht poem, “A German War Primer”:

 

                        General, your bomber is powerful

                        It smashes down forests and crushes a hundred men

                        But it has one defect:

                        It needs a driver.

 

This ‘defect,’ a driver is both a human cost, and maybe a brake on excess, as Brecht suggests a few lines later:

 

                        General, man is very useful

                        He can fly and he can kill

                        But he has one defect:

                        He can think.

 

Of course, military training and discipline are generally effective in overcoming this defect, especially as backed up by the nationalist ideology discussed above, while international humanitarian law vainly tries to give support to thinking and respecting limits. The Nuremberg Trials of Nazi surviving leaders even went so far as to decide that ‘superior orders’ were no excuse if war crimes were committed.

 

In the nuclear age this process went further as the stakes were so high. I recall visiting the headquarters of the Strategic Air Command (SAC) at the height of the Cold War. SAC was responsible for the missile force that then targeted many cities in the Soviet Union. What struck me at the time was the seeming technocratic indifference of those entrusted with operating the computers that would fire the missiles in contrast to the ideological zeal of the commanding generals who would give the orders to annihilate millions of civilians at a distant locations. I was told at the time that the lower ranked technical personnel had been tested to ensure that moral scruples would not interfere with their readiness to follow orders. I found this mix of commanders politically convinced that the enemy was evil and apolitical and amoral subordinates a frightening mix at the time, and still do, although I have not been invited back to SAC to see whether similar conditions now prevail. I suspect that they do, considering the differing requirements of the two roles. This view seems confirms by the enthusiasm expressed for carrying on the ‘war on terror’ in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

 

In this period new technological innovations in war making accentuate my earlier concerns. The reliance on drone attacks in Afghanistan (and elsewhere) removes the human person altogether from the war experience, except as in the role of programmer, and even here reliance on algorithms for targeting, removes any shred of responsibility. When mistakes are made, and innocent civilians are killed, the event is neutralized by being labeled ‘collateral damage,’ and an apology is issued but the practice goes on and is even extended.  More important is the chilling effect of removing that human presence, both as a person of one’s own nation being at risk and as a source of potential questioning and even refusal. It should be recalled that the anti-war opposition of American soldiers in Vietnam exerted a powerful influence that helped over time finally to bring this failed war to an end.

 

What is at stake ultimately is the human spirit squeezed to near death by technological momentum, corporate greed, militarism, and secular fundamentalism. This web of historical forces continues to entrap major political actors in the world, and dims hopes for a sustainable future even without taking into account the dismal effects of the gathering clouds of climate change. Scenarios of future cyber warfare are also part of this overall process of destroying societies without risking lives directly. The cumulative effect of these developments is to make irrelevant the moral compass that alone provides acceptable guidance for a progressive human future.

    

Dilemmas of Sovereignty and Intervention

16 Jul


 

         

            The Arab Spring (and its troublesome, yet still hopeful, aftermath in Egypt), intervention in Libya, nonintervention in Syria and Bahrain, drone military operations in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, the influx of unwanted immigrants and walls of exclusion, and selective applications of international criminal law draw into question the most basic of all ideas of world order: the sovereignty of territorial states, and its limits. Also, at issue, are the closely related norms of international law prohibiting intervention in the internal affairs of states and affirming the fundamental right of self-determination as an inherent right of all peoples. These are basic rules of international order acknowledged in the United Nations Charter, taking the form of prohibiting the Organization from intervening in matters ‘essentially within domestic jurisdiction’ and through affirmations of the right of self-determination.

The latter is only aspirational in the Charter, but becomes obligatory as a result being posited as common Article 1 of the two human rights Covenants and being listed as one of seven principles enumerated in the authoritative Declaration on Principles of International Law Concerning Friendly Relations and Cooperation Among States (UN General Assembly Resolution 2625, 1970).

 

            At the same time, as Ken Booth provocatively pointed out almost 20 years ago one of the great failings over the centuries of the Westphalian framework of world order (based on treaties of peace in 1648 concluded at the end of the Thirty Years War that are treated as establishing the modern European system of territorial states premised on the juridical ideal of sovereign equality) was associated with sovereign prerogatives to possess unconditional authority in state/society relations. Booth showed that respect for sovereignty had legitimated the inner space of states as a sanctuary for the commission of what he called ‘human wrongs,’ that is, non-accountable and cruel abuses of persons subject to territorial authority. Historically, the West claimed rights of intervention, often in the name of ‘civilization,’ in the non-West, particularly in the decaying Ottoman Empire of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The great wakeup experience, at least rhetorically for the liberal West, was the non-response at the international level to the lethal internal persecutions in Nazi Germany during the 1930s, which were not only within a sovereign state, but within a country with a high claim to be a major embodiment of Western civilization.

 

The responses after World War II, mainly expressed via international law, consisted of the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials of surviving German and Japanese leaders, the adoption of the Genocide Convention, and the negotiation and approval of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), as well as the establishment of the United Nations itself. These were well-intentioned, although somewhat ambivalent, gestures of global responsibility that generated criticisms and even suspicions at the time: the Nuremberg and Tokyo standards of individual accountability for crimes were only imposed by the coalition of victors in World War II upon the losers, exempting the Allied Powers from any legal responsibility for the terror bombings of German and Japanese cities and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; the Genocide Convention seemed deficient due to its failure to  provide mechanisms for enforcement; the UDHR was drafted under the sway of Western liberal individualism as a hegemonic orientation, and was only endorsed in the form of a non-binding ‘declaration,’ a clear signal that no expectation of enforcement existed; as well, the legitimacy of the colonial structures of foreign ruler were not questioned until challenged by a series of populist uprisings throughout the non-West that produced some bloody wars as in Indochina and Algeria..

 

            In passing, it should be observed that the West never respected the sovereign rights of the peoples of the non-West until it was forced to do so. Whether it was European colonialism that extended its reach throughout Africa and Asia or the assertions of American hegemony over Latin America beneath the banner of the Monroe Doctrine the pattern was one based on relations of hierarchy, not equality. This was accompanied by a refusal to extend the Westphalian writ of mutual respect for sovereign rights beyond the Euro-American regional domain until the imperial order began to crumble after World War I. First, the Good Neighbor policy seemed to reaffirm sovereignty for Latin America, but only within limits set by Washington, as the Cold War era of covert and overt interventions confirm. In the Middle East and Africa various experiments with colonial halfway houses were undertaken within the framework of the League of Nations, and formalized as the Mandates System. Secondly, after World War II a variety of nationalist movements and wars of national liberation broke the back of European colonialism as an acceptable political arrangement, and the idea of the equality of sovereign states was globalized as a matter of juridical doctrine, although not geopolitically.

 

            During the last six decades the world has moved forward in pursuit of global justice, or has it? On the one side, human rights has matured beyond all expectations, and to some degree exerts a generalized moral and political force subversive of national sovereignty by validating a higher law that exists above and beyond the legal order of the state. This subversive thrust is reinforced by the development and institutionalization of international criminal law, enforcement of accountability claims against such pariah leaders as Milosevic and Saddam Hussein, as well as lesser figures in the entourage of tyrants, the establishment of the International Criminal Court, arrest warrants for the likes of el-Bashir of Sudan and Qaddafi. And, perhaps, most significantly in relation to global justice, the rise of respected transnational NGOs that have created a somewhat less selective pressure for implementation of human rights norms, but one that remains weighted toward political and civil rights that are given priority in the liberal democracies of the North, and one that gives little attention to the economic, social, cultural, and collective rights that possess primary importance to developing societies in the South. In actuality, the UDHR was correct in its integration of all forms of human rights in a single coherent legal instrument, but it became a casualty of the Cold War ideological tensions between capitalism and socialism, with one side championing a liberal individualist understanding of human rights and the other side a collective conception.

 

            And yet, these various moves toward what might be called ‘humanitarian globalization’ achieved at the expense of older conceptions sovereignty are too often subordinated to the realities of geopolitics. That is, the application of legal standards and the assertion of interventionary claims remain imbalanced: the West against the rest, the North against the South, the strong against the weak. Even the supposedly globally oriented human rights NGOs devote most of their attention to non-West violations when it comes to alleged infractions of international criminal law.  Selective applications of law and morality tarnish the integrity of law and morality that is premised upon fidelity to principles of equality and reciprocity. This makes supposedly challenges to sovereignty suspect, but are they also worthless, or as some argue, worse than worthless?

 

            There are two contradictory modes of response. The liberal answer is to insist that progress in society almost always occurs incrementally, and doing what is possible politically is better than throwing up one’s hands in frsutration, and doing nothing. So long as targets of intervention and indicted leaders are given fair trials, and are convicted on the basis of the weight of the evidence, such results should be affirmed as demonstrating an expanding global rule of law, and serving the interests of global justice. The fact that the principal states intervene at will and enjoy impunity in relation to international criminal law, remains a feature of world politics, and is even given a prominent constitutional status at the UN by granting a veto power to the five permanent members of the Security Council.

 

            The critical response argues that the prevalence of double standards contaminates law, and makes it just one more instrument of power. The authority and legitimacy of law depends on its linkage to justice, not power. To enforce prohibitions on the use of aggressive force or the commission of crimes of state only on losers and the weak is implicitly to cede the high moral and legal ground to the richest and most dangerous political actors. It makes available a humanitarian disguise for abusive behavior in a post-colonial global setting, providing pretexts for disregarding the dynamics of self-determination, which is the legal, political, and moral lynchpin of a system of sovereign states detached from the hierarchies of geopolitics.

 

            In a world beset by contradictions, there are only hard choices. There seem to be three kinds of situation that somewhat transcend this tension between liberal and critical perspectives: a severe natural disaster that cannot be addressed by national capabilities ( Asian tsunami of 2004; Haiti earthquake of 2010) acute or imminent genocide as in Rwanda (1994) where a small international effort would have seemed likely to avert the deaths of hundreds of thousands; a mandate to act issued by the UN Security Council as in Libya. In each instance, there are risks, uncertainties, and unanticipated effects; especially worrisome is the recent pattern of authorizations of force by the Security Council. Both in the Gulf War (1991), to some extent the sanctions currently imposed on Iran, and now with the Libyan intervention, the mandate to use force is stretched beyond the limits specified in the language of authorization. In the Libyan case, Security Council Resolution 1973 the initial justification for intervention was justified by reference to an emergency situation endangering the lives of many Libyan civilians, but converted operationally and massively by NATO into a mandate to achieve regime change in Tripoli by dislodging the Qaddafi leadership. No effort was made to secure a broader mandate from the Security Council and nothing was done to insist that NATO operations be limited by the terms of the original UN authorization.

 

            What can be done? We have little choice but to cope as best we can with these contradictions, especially when it comes to uses of force in the course of what is labeled as a ‘humanitarian intervention’ or an application of the ‘right to protect’ norm. I would propose two ways to turn the abundance of information on these issues into reliable knowledge, and hopefully thereby, to engender greater wisdom with respect to the specifics of global policy and decision-making. First, acknowledge the full range of realities in international life, including the absence of equal protection of the law, that is, judging claims and deciding on responses with eyes wide open by being sensitive to the context, including its many uncertainties. With these considerations in mind adopt a posture of reluctance to use force except in extreme cases. Secondly, presume strongly against reliance on hard power resolutions of conflict situations both because the costs almost always exceed the estimates of those advocating intervention and because military power during the period of the last sixty years is rarely able to shape political outcomes in ways that are on balance beneficial for the society on whose behalf the intervention is supposedly taking place.

 

            When it comes to severe human rights abuses somewhat analogous considerations apply. In almost every instance, deference to internal dynamics seems preferable to intervention-from-without, while soft power interventions-from-below-and-without are to be encouraged as expressions of emergent global democracy. Victimization and collective acute vulnerability should not be insulated from assistance by rigid notions of sovereignty, but nor should self-determination be jeopardized by the hypocritical moral pretensions of hegemonic states.  This is inevitably a delicate balance, but the alternative is to opt for extremes of passivity or activism.

 

            In effect, to the extent possible, global challenges to sovereignty should take the form of transnational soft power tactics of empathy as identities of persons around the globe become as globalized (and localized) as markets. The recent furor aroused by Freedom Flotilla II is illustrative of an emerging tension between the role of sovereign states in defining the contours of law and morality and that of popular forces mobilized on behalf of those unjustly suffering and neglected by the world of states. Ideally, the UN should act as a mediating arbiter, but the UN remains a membership organization designed to serve the diplomacy of sovereign states and the states system, and is generally hostile to the claims of global civil society however well founded. One attractive proposal to endow the UN with a more robust mediating role is to establish some form of Global Parliament, perhaps building on the experience of the European Parliament that has evolved in authority and political weight over the decades.  A more relevant innovation consistent with the above analysis would be the establishment of a UN Humanitarian Emergency Peace Fund with independent funding, an authorizing procedure that was not subject to a veto, and an operational discipline that ensured that the implementation of a mandate to act forcibly did not exceed its boundaries.  

 

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A final attempt to clarify my posting of the cartoon

6 Jul

Because this unintentional posting of an anti-semitic cartoon has attracted such attention to my blog, and elicited a stream of venomous comments, I want to explain my mistake one last time. I do this without trying to excuse the carelessness involved, although I would point out that I removed the cartoon as soon as I became aware of its real content.

Even now I needed a magnifying glass to identify the anti-semitic character of the dog. My vision (at 80) is pretty good, but not good enough. It looked like a helmet to me, and the main visible symbol on the dog was the USA midriff covering. I found the cartoon through a Google image search on the page devoted to the International Criminal Court. Almost all the images there were about the Court or justice, and I assumed that this blindfolded goddess of justice was being led around by the USA. I am quite sure this cartoon would never have been allowed on the Google page if its true content had been realized, and it should be removed. Without a special effort, which admittedly I did not make, this true content is easy to overlook, and even when the initial objection to the cartoon was brought to my attention, and I looked at it, I did not appreciate the objectionable character of what was intended to be communicated.

Apology for Unintentionally Posting Anti-Semitic Cartoon in Qaddafi Arrest Warrant Blog

6 Jul

With apologies, I realize that the cartoon that originally appeared on my blog devoted to the arrest warrants for Qaddafi and two others issued by the ICC had strongly anti-semitic symbolism that I had not detected before it was pointed out to me. I posted the cartoon to express my view that double standards pertained to the American and ICC approach to international criminal accountability. As soon as I was made aware of the anti-semitic content of the cartoon I removed it from my blog, although initially I denied such a posting because I did not realize that it was anti-semitic and was mistaken as to what was being referred to. My intention has never been to demean in any way Jews as a people despite my strong criticisms of Israeli policies, and some versions of Zionist support. My interest and commitment has always been directed at finding a just and sustainable peace for both peoples, although I believe that this must be based on a belated recognition of Palestinian rights, and not on power relationships.

To be clear, I oppose any denigration of a people based on ethnicity, race, religion, stage of development, and believe in the human dignity of all people in their individual and collective identity. Beyond this, if we are to have a sustainable human future we must also make peace with nature, and treat animals with as much respect as possible. This is both a sacred imperative of my idea of a spiritual life, but also an integral aspect of species survival on an increasingly crowded, overheated, and endangered planet.

Returning to the cartoon, I regret my carelessness, and apologize for any unintended hurt and outrage caused thereby. At the same time, I am quite aware that many of the messages were motivated to discredit me due to my views of Israeli policies and behavior.

 

Sabotaging Flotilla II: Waging War Against Civil Society

4 Jul images-2


           The reports that two of the foreign flagged ships planning to be part of the ten vessel Freedom Flotilla II experienced similar forms of disabling sabotage creates strong circumstantial evidence of Israeli responsibility. It stretches the imagination to suppose that a sophisticated cutting of the propeller shafts of both ships is a coincidence with no involvement by Israel’s Mossad, long infamous for its overseas criminal acts in support of contested Israeli national interests. Recalling the lethal encounter in international waters with Freedom Flotilla I that took place on 31 May 2010, and the frantic diplomatic campaign by Tel Aviv to prevent this second challenge to the Gaza blockade by peace activists and humanitarian aid workers, such conduct by a state against this latest civil society initiative, if further validated by incriminating evidence, should be formally condemned as a form of ‘state terrorism’ or even as an act of war by a state against global civil society.

 

The Israeli Government has so far done little to deny its culpability. Its highest officials speak of the allegations in self-righteous language that is typically diversionary, asserting an irrelevant right of self-defense, which supposedly comes mysteriously into play whenever civil society acts nonviolently to break the siege of Gaza that has persisted for more than four years. From the perspective of the obligations to uphold international law it is the Flotilla participants who are acting legally and morally, certainly well within their rights, and it is Israel and their friends that are resorting to a variety of legally and morally dubious tactics to insulate this cruel and unlawful blockade from what is essentially a symbolic challenge. The behavior of the Greek Government, surely a reflection of its precarious financial and political situation, also violates the law of the sea: foreign flagged vessels can be detained in port only if they are acting in violation of national law or are proven to be unseaworthy and dangerous to international navigation. Otherwise, interference by detention or by seizing while en route within Greek territorial waters is an unlawful interference with the right of innocent passage. Greece would be very vulnerable to defeat and damages if the Freedom Flotilla victims of these encroachment on rights were to have recourse to the Hamburg International Tribunal for Law of the Sea.

 

            The most relevant precedent for such government-sponsored sabotage is the Rainbow Warrior incident of 1985. There French agents detonated explosives on a Greenpeace (an environmental NGO) fishing trawler docked in the Auckland, New Zealand harbor prior to proactively challenging the French plans to conduct underwater nuclear tests off the shore of the nearby Pacific atoll, Moruroa. Fernando Pereira , Greenpeace photographer for the mission, was killed by the explosions, although the devices were detonated at night when no one from Greenpeace was expected to be on board the vessel. At first, the French government completely denied involvement, later as incriminating evidence mounted, Paris officially claimed that its agents who were identified as being near the scene were only spying on Greenpeace activities and had nothing to do with the explosives, and later still, as the evidence of French culpability became undeniable, officials in France finally admitted government responsibility for this violent undertaking to eliminate activist opposition to their nuclear test, even acknowledging that the operation had been given the bizarre, although self-incriminating, code-name of Operation Satanique.

 

After some further months of controversy the French Prime Minister, Laurent Fabius cleared the air by issuing a contrite statement: “The truth is cruel. Agents of the French secret service sank the boat. They were acting on orders.” (the decision to destroy the Rainbow Warrior were later confirmed to have come from France’s supreme leader at the time, the president of the Republic, Francois Mitterand) The French agents who had by then been arrested by the New Zealand police, charged with arson, willful damage, and murder, but due to pressure from the French government that included a threatened European economic embargo on New Zealand exports, the charges were reduced. The French defendants were allowed to enter a guilty plea to lesser charges of manslaughter that was accepted by the Auckland court, resulting in a ten-year prison sentence, and later supplemented by an inter-governmental deal that virtually eliminated the punishment. The French paid New Zealand $6.5 million and issued an apology, while the convicted agents were transferred to a French military base on Hao atoll, and were later wrongly released only two years after being genteelly confined in comfortable quarters provided by the base.

 

            It is useful to compare the Flotilla II unfolding experience with the Rainbow Warrior incident. At the time, the French nuclear tests in the Pacific were considered legal, although intensely contested, while the blockade of Israel is widely viewed as a prolonged instance of collective punishment in violation of international humanitarian law, specifically Article 33 of the 4th Geneva Convention. Although Israel could argue that it had a right to monitor ships suspected of carrying arms to occupied Gaza, the Freedom Flotilla II ships made themselves available for inspection, and there was no sufficient security justification for the blockade as the investigation by the UN Human Rights Council of the 2010 flotilla incident made clear. The overriding role of the blockade is to inflict punitive damage on the people of Gaza. Even before the blockade was imposed in 2007 all shipments at the Gaza crossing points were painstakingly monitored by Israel for smuggled weapons.

 

A person was unintentionally killed by the French acts of sabotage, and so far no one has died as a result of these efforts to disable and interfere with Flotilla ships, although the Irish vessel, MV Saoirse (‘freedom’ in Gaelic), was disabled in such a way that if the damage had not been discovered before heading to sea, the ship reportedly would have likely sunk with many passengers put at extreme risk of death. Perhaps, the most important distinction of all, is the failure to claim any right to act violently against peaceful protesters even though the French state was officially engaged in an activity directly associated with its national security (weapons development). In contrast, the Israelis are seeking to avoid having their universally unpopular and criminal Gaza policies further delegitimized, and claim the entitlement as a sovereign state to engage in violent action, even if it endangers nonviolent civilians. In effect, it is a declaration of war by Israel against global civil society as over 50 nationalities are represented among the passengers on the Flotilla ships.

 

Any reasonably informed person knows that the Israeli alleged concern about weapons smuggling to Gaza is a smokescreen without substance. The Flotilla organizers have credibly pledged nonviolence, have offered to allow inspectors to examine the cargo, and have invited respected journalists to be on board the vessels. There is zero prospect of weapons being allowed on board any of these ships (even without any inspection), and the Israelis undoubtedly realize this, as does Washington. To insist that this demonstrably peaceful activism mainly by dedicated adherents of nonviolent militancy poses a threat to Israeli security while hardly ever mentioning the hundreds of unmonitored tunnels that are in daily use along the Gaza border with Egypt makes a mockery of the Israeli argument.

 

            Long before the flotilla actually set sail, with typical propagandistic fervor and diplomatic finesse, supported every inch of the way by its many powerful friends in Washington, Israel zealously engaged in a concerted hasbara campaign to discredit the shipment of humanitarian aid to the besieged people of Gaza. By verbal acrobatics reminding us that Orwell’s warnings about the extreme debasement of political language (1984) remains all too relevant as ever, Israel has been trying to portray committed peace activists and cultural icons (e.g. Alice Walker) as harboring ‘terrorists’ and arms dealers, if not being themselves willing accomplices. As might be expected, much of the media, especially in the United States, has taken at face value such scandalous accusations, or at the very least has put them forward as credibly accounting for the bitter complaint by Israel that Flotilla II is being used as a humanitarian front behind which arms are being smuggled into Israel.

 

            On a second level of Orwellian distortion, a somewhat more subtle, but no less insidious, case against the Flotilla has been put forward.  The daily existence of the entrapped, impoverished, and mentally and physically debilitated Gazans have been widely depicted by Israeli propagandists as if they were enjoying a glitzy pleasure kingdom that benefits its 1.6 million inhabitants. No less a journalistic personality than Ethan Bronner, long a skilled Israeli apologist in the American setting, opens a front page story in the NY Times (June 28, 2011), with the following absurdly glowing description of the situation in Gaza: “Two luxury hotels are opening in Gaza this month. Thousands of new cars are plying the roads. A second shopping mall—with escalators imported from Israel—will open next month. Hundreds of homes and two dozen schools are about to go up. A Hamas-run farm where Jewish settlements once stood is producing enough fruit that Israeli imports are tapering off.” What makes this travesty on conditions in Gaza newsworthy is not these good things that are supposedly happening, but its relevance to the Israeli contention that the humanitarian rationale for the flotilla mission is fatuous and unnecessary because the life of the Gazans, despite appearances to the contrary, is going along in sprightly fashion despite the barbed wire and prison walls that enclose Gaza. It comes as no surprise that Bronner immediately connects his puff opening about conditions in Gaza with the Israeli anti-flotilla campaign: “As pro-Palestinian activists prepare to set sail aboard a flotilla aimed at maintaining an international spotlight on Gaza and pressure on Israel, the isolated Palestinian coastal enclave is experiencing its first real period of economic growth since the siege they are protesting began in 2007.”

 

Later on in the story, presumably to avoid losing all credibility as an objective reporter in that deceptive NY Times style, Bronner acknowledges some of the darker sides of life in Gaza, but in a manner that does little to challenge the dominant message of his article: since there is no genuine humanitarian crisis in Gaza, the real motivations of Flotilla organizers must be either to delegitimize Israel or to mount an irresponsible challenge to the country’s reasonable security measures. It is a portrayal that is echoed by the assertion by the Chief of Staff of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), Benny Gantz, who has the temerity to assert that the people of Gaza are enjoying a ‘comfortable lifestyle.’ Ehud Barak, the Minister of Defense, joins the chorus with his suggestion that if the Flotilla activists were sincere in their humanitarian commitment they would forget about the people of Gaza and turn their attention a genuine humanitarian challenge: arranging the release of the sole Israeli prisoner, Gilad Shalit, held by Hamas. Of course, Barak is silent about the several thousand Palestinians, including numerous children, being held by Israel, sometimes for years, in detention under harsh conditions.

 

            A first level of response to such distortions is to point to the authoritative and highly data-based report released last month by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) on the economic conditions in Gaza with special attention to labor. Among its highlights is the disclosure that the unemployment rate in Gaza has climbed to 45.2%, which appears to be the highest in the world.  This alarming figure was coupled with a 7.9% decline in the purchasing power of average monthly wages for the those Palestinians during the last half of 2010 lucky enough to have a job. There has been an alarming overall decline of 34.5% in the purchasing power of workers for the period since 2006. It is further estimated that 300,000 Gazans now subsist on less than $1 per day.

 

And this is not all. 95% of the water supply in Gaza is unsafe for human consumption, the electricity is insufficient for the needs of the population, causing frequent blackouts. Worse still, the health system is near collapse, with no supply of many vital medicines, and most other medicines in Gaza are not reliable because they are being held beyond their expiration dates. There are numerous recent reports of curtailed services in Gaza hospitals, cancelled surgeries and closures because of the absence of essential medical supplies. And perhaps, most crippling of all, no exports of any kind from Gaza have been allowed during the entire period of the blockade and siege. This means that most Gazans have become almost totally dependent on UN handouts and the machinations of black marketers just to subsist.

 

            But the material conditions of deprivation do not begin to describe the ordeal endured by the Gazan population. To be entrapped in such an impoverished and crowded areas for a few days would be a hardship, but to be denied entry or exit over a period of four years is a crime, a distinct humanitarian disaster even if Gaza was indeed the Switzerland of the Middle East that Israeli leaders are seeking to have the world believe. Additionally, Israel uses violence across its borders at times and places of its choosing, killing and wounding many, and terrifying the entire Gazan population. The debris of the 2008-09 massive attacks has mostly not been cleared, nor have many of the destroyed homes and buildings been reconstructed.

 

            To view this cumulative set of conditions as other than a severe humanitarian crisis, intensified by an illegal blockade, is grotesque. It is compounded by another Orwellian maneuver. The American Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, had the temerity to say a few days ago that “..its not helpful for there to be flotillas that try to provoke actions by entering into Israeli waters and creating a situation in which Israelis have a right to defend themselves.” Should we not ask ‘who is provoking whom?’ Are Israelis defending themselves or insulating their criminality in Gaza from a peaceful and entirely appropriate challenge, especially considering the passivity of governments and the UN that have allowed this particular humanitarian catastrophe to go on and on? Since when does a sovereign state have a right of self-defense against peace activists and humanitarian aid workers? At the very least should not Clinton have implored the new Egyptian leadership to open and expand the Rafah Crossing to allow Gazans a reliable means of exit and entry?

 

            Shining through the darkness of this experience of obstructing Flotilla II is the raw nerve of the illegitimacy of Israeli occupation policy. Neither the Flotilla movement nor the somewhat complementary BDS campaign are questioning the legitimacy of Israel as such, but they are challenging the unyielding and expansionist Zionist leadership that denies the fundamental rights of the Palestinian people living under occupation, but also the rights of the 5-7 million Palestinians living in refugee camps or in exile and the rights of the 1.5 million Palestinians that have been subject to a range of discriminations ever since the establishment of Israel in 1948. A just and sustainable peace for both peoples requires an acknowledgement and implementation of these rights. Such rights are truly inalienable, and do not lapse because of their long suppression. This is ultimately what the Flotilla II encounter is really about, and this is also why Israel finds it so dangerous.  

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