By Gideon Levy
July 6, 2009
Combat is the best, my brother, as the famous bumper sticker reads. It’s a good thing we have Shayetet 13. Operating at the crack of dawn – or was it before nightfall? – the daring naval commandos fearlessly took control of a rusty, rickety, unarmed boat bobbing in the middle of the sea. That’s exactly why we have a naval commando force – to take control of ships offering humanitarian aid. Behold, the guardian of Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps. The military correspondents reported on the incident with an amazement that only they can muster. But even they could not provide a fig leaf for the operation: The Israel Defense Forces has once again used its power to overcome the weak; the navy has once again acted like pirates. The Arion was abducted in the framework of protecting Israel’s security for all eternity, blah, blah, blah.
Soldiers, journalists and news consumers automatically refrain from asking questions. The navy captured another ship carrying symbolic aid, as if its passengers were Somali pirates. These were people of conscience from various countries carrying toys and medicine.
This was not the navy’s first daring operation of this kind, nor will it be the last. When there are no hostile aid ships on the horizon, the navy takes control of wretched Gazan boats, using water hoses or firing at its passengers – poor fishermen who only want to make a living at sea. This is the main activity unfolding off Gaza’s shores. A navy outfitted with the best arsenal in the world is hunting surfboards. One of the best-armed forces in the world is chasing children, examining old people’s documents and entering bedrooms to make arrests.
It’s Been a Bad Week for Israel
From Gulf Today, Michael Jansen:
This past week has been a bad one for Israel. Its bad behaviour was manifested in the seizure of a ferry boat carrying medical supplies and activists to Gaza, the impounding of the vessel and humanitarian cargo, and the imprisonment of crew and passengers. What is more, Israel’s vio- lations of human rights and international law were documented in detail in important studies issued by the International Committee of the Red Cross, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. The vessel, the Spirit of Humanity, a Greek-registered island ferry with 21 crew and peace activists and three tonnes of medical supplies on board, set sail from the Cypriot port of Larnaca on Monday morning, ex- pecting to reach Gaza’s fishing port on Tuesday afternoon.
The ship was intercepted by Israeli warships, boarded by naval commandos, and forced to go to the Israeli port of Ashdod. The 21 passengers and crew were taken to holding cells at Tel Aviv’s international airport. Two Palestinian citizens of Israel and five Bahrainis were freed while the other 14 were taken to Giv-On prison in Ramle where they were put in cells with illegal immigrants. Among the imprisoned activists are Irish Nobel Peace Prize winner Mairead Maguire and former US congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, both high profile captives certain to speak out once they are freed. On Friday Maguire, who won the peace prize for promoting reconciliation between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, began a prayerful fast in solidarity with the 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza. “This is not a hunger strike, I drink plenty of water and look after my health,” she told The Gulf Today on a mobile phone. She has not decided how long to continue with her fast. It depends on whether the prisoners, members of the Cyprus-based Free Gaza Movement, decide to appeal their deportation, set to take place on Monday.
Maguire stated, “Our approach is that we were kidnapped [in international waters] and taken to Israel against our will. We are waiting to see our lawyer and see what all our options are.” Whatever the group decides, she said, “I plan to be the last one to leave.” The Israeli seizure of the ferry and imprisonment of the passengers and crew has attracted a great deal of adverse publicity and some condemnation. International legal expert and UN special rapporteur on Palestine, Richard Falk called Israel’s “illegal.”
The voyage of the Spirit of Humanity coincided with a report on the dire situation in Gaza issued by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which rarely goes public with criticisms of human rights violators. Six months after Israel’s military offensive Israeli “restrictions on imports are making it impossible for Gazans to rebuild their lives, the ICRC stated. The quantities of goods now entering Gaza fall well short of what is required to meet the population’s needs.” Gaza’s medical services “are run down” and “much of the equipment is unreliable and in need of repair.”
Seriously ill patients cannot leave the besieged Strip. The ICRC described neighbourhoods bombed by Israel during its 23-day December-January offensive as still looking “like the epicentre of a massive earthquake” because Israel refuses to allow “vast quantities of cement, steel and other building materials..into the territory for reconstruction.” The ICRC said all import restrictions had to be lifted. The ICRC summed up: “Gaza’s alarming poverty is directly linked to the tight closure imposed on the territory. Local industry and businesses have to be allowed to rebuild, import essential inputs and to ex- port their products…”The crisis has become so severe and entrenched that even if all crossings [between Israel and Gaza] were to open tomorrow, it would take years for the economy to recover.” On June 30 Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a study of Israel’s misuse of missile-launching drones during its offensive. Drones, or unmanned combat areial vehicles, fire precisely targeted missiles and are “one of the most precise weapons in [Israel’s] arsenal.” HRW makes the point that since drones can launch missiles “with pinpoint accuracy,” these weapons should have inflicted very few civilian casualties. But HRW discovered that “drones are only as good at sparing civilians as the care taken by the people who operate them.” In Gaza, “Israel’s targeting choices led to the loss of many civilian lives.” The total number, HRW said, is “unclear.” Palestinian and Israeli human rights organisations reported 42 drone attacks that killed 87 civilians; Amnesty International documented 48 deaths from drones. But “this does not represent the full number.” HRW made its case on the basis of drone technology: “The ..capabilities of drones and drone-launched missiles make the violations even more egregious. Israeli drones are equipped with high-resolution cameras and advanced sensors, which allow drone operators to view objects on the ground in detail during both day and night…In addition, the missile launched from a drone carries its own cameras that allow the operator to ob- serve the target from the moment of firing to impact” and enabling him to abort if there are doubts about the identity of the target.”With these advanced visual capabilities, drone operators who exercised the proper degree of care should have been able to tell the difference between legitimate targets and civilians.”
The report focused on six strikes that killed 29 civilians, including eight children. The organisation interviewed survivors and witnesses and, in a single case, viewed Israeli video footage of the attack. All six strikes targeted individuals in areas where there were no Palestinian armed elements present. In these cases Israeli operators did not “verify that the targets were combatants” or “failed to distinguish between combatants and civilians.” Consequently, HRW concluded: “these attacks violated international humanitarian law (the laws of war).” Amnesty International accused Israel of breaching the laws of war in a 117-page comprehensive report released on July 2. Amnesty said there were 1,400 Palestinian fatalities, including 900 civilians, of whom 115 were women and 300 children. Amnesty said that “large areas of Gaza had been razed to the ground, leaving many thousands homeless and the already dire economy in ruins.” Amnesty asserted, “Much of the destruction [in Gaza] was wanton and resulted from direct attacks on civilian [targets] as well as indiscriminate attacks that failed to distinguish between legitimate military targets and civilian [sites].. Hundreds of civilians were killed in attacks carried out using high-precision weapons..Others, including women and children were shot at short range when posing no threat to the lives of Israeli soldiers.” Amnesty not only cited Israel’s misuse of high-precision weapons but also said this was combined with the misuse of imprecise incendiary white phosphorus shells over and in densely populated residential areas, killing and injuring civilians and destroying property. Amnesty was paricularly critical of Israel’s denials that it was using white phosphorus – even though smoke trails of airburst shells revealed that this was the case – because this delayed appropriate medical treatment for those injured by this substance. Amnesty stated, “Artillery in general and white phosphorus shells in particular should never be used in populated areas.”
These weapons were designed to mask with smoke troop movements in specific areas or attacks on enemy tank and troop concentrations. Amnesty charged Israeli troops with using Palestinians as “human shields” to provide protection while they occupied or searched buildings. This practice was banned under Israeli law after Israeli troops were caught employing “human shields” in the West Bank. Therefore, the Israeli army was in breach of the country’s own law as well as international law. Amnesty dismissed Israeli allegations that Palestinian paramilitaries had compelled Palestinian civilians to remain in buildings or locations to shield fighters from Israeli attack. The overall assessment of Amnesty was: “The scale and intensity of the attacks were unprecedented, even in the context of increasingly lethal Israeli military campaigns in Gaza in previous years.” Amnesty said the Israeli military knew this from the beginning but continued the onslaught until the ceasefire early on January 18. Amnesty reported that Hamas and its allies breached international law by firing rockets into southern Israel, killing three civilians. But as these and other human rights organisations have found, Israel’s violations outweighed by far those of the Palestinian resistance. So far Israel has been able to shrug off such bad publicity but the fact that individuals and international humanitarian agencies are now speaking out means that Israel no longer enjoys its traditional “immunity” from criticism. Sooner rather than later Israel will have to alter its behaviour in order to avoid prosecution and punishment for its actions.