Can we make any sense of Israel’s policy toward Gaza? I think we can—a rather sinister sense—but only if we look beyond the mass of sometimes conflicting details that have emerged since the attack on the “Gaza Freedom Flotilla” on May 31. On the face of it, it’s hard to understand how any government could have decided to do anything so obviously self-defeating. At the very least Israel has handed Hamas a major propaganda victory, one that should easily have been foreseen. On the other hand, there is surely something about the whole foolish, deadly episode that is emblematic of Israeli’s current approach. Listen, first, to the public statements.
“Everything would have worked fine, but the passengers reacted inappropriately.” Thus, a headline describing the reaction of the captain who led the Israeli naval commando team onto the Mavi Marmara—the Turkish ship that was attempting to bring humanitarian aid to Gaza as part of the flotilla—and who was wounded in the ensuing struggle. (He was said to be speaking from his hospital bed.) He is certainly not alone in taking this view of the incident. In his first public statement after the debacle, Defense Minister Ehud Barak also blamed the activists on board the Turkish ship for what happened; he later added, in a striking non sequitur, that in the Middle East you cannot afford to show weakness, though that is precisely what the Israeli attack had demonstrated. Spokesmen for both the army and the government repeatedly said that the soldiers were in danger of being lynched—as if they were innocent victims of an ambush rather than, in effect, state-sponsored pirates attacking a convoy carrying humanitarian aid in international waters. The Israeli genius for “designer victimhood,” to borrow a phrase from the Indian political philosopher Jyotirmaya Sharma, is capable of surprising flashes of ingenuity.
Within a week, the activists on the Mavi Marmara who resisted the attack had been upgraded in Israeli public discourse to terrorists—an amazingly capacious category that sometimes seems to include anyone who refuses to toe the government line. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman had applied the term to the flotilla activists indiscriminately, even before the boats set sail. But it’s important to emphasize that the violence by some of the activists on the Turkish boat against the Israeli commandos contradicts the basic tenets that the Israeli peace movement has embraced for many years. Those of us who work in the occupied Palestinian territories have been attacked many times, sometimes savagely, by Israeli settlers, and sometimes by soldiers and police; we do not meet violence with violence.
Such was not the case on the…
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