When I found out two volunteers on the Free Gaza Flotilla (a humanitarian aid convoy and act of civil disobedience challenging Israel’s brutal blockade of the Gaza Strip) had been killed by Israeli commandos in international waters, I thought — hoped — there had been some ghastly mistake. When the death toll climbed to at least nine, I was speechless.
The brutality of it didn’t surprise me. I know very well what the Israeli army is capable of. But the stupidity of it did. Israel has arguably the world’s most advanced spin machine, but how could anyone spin the murder of civilians by what amounts to piracy on the high seas by the army of a sovereign nation?
They didn’t disappoint. They claimed the civilian aid workers attacked first, with sticks and kitchen knives. They claimed the soldiers boarded the boats armed only with paintball guns and were the victims of an attempted lynch. They claimed all kinds of other things that are so crazy, they don’t bear repeating here.
Of course, people who are boarded by armed hijackers in international waters are technically allowed to defend themselves. But the story that they rushed armed commandos with baseball bats, without provocation, is a little crazier than I’m willing to swallow whole. Especially now that profiles of the victims (all Turkish so far) have emerged, most of them middle-aged family men, one a high school student with dual American citizenship.
We’ll know more when and if full details come to light. Since the incident, the airwaves have been dominated not by testimonies of the people involved but by Israeli spokespeople and apologists. This is in part because many of the people involved are dead, injured, or being detained by Israel. But even after most of the activists have been released, news organizations like the New York Times apparently don’t think the testimonies of brown people and/or humanitarian activists are ‘objective’ enough to be newsworthy. Which rather strikes me as a court dismissing the testimony of the victim of an alleged rape because she’s a feminist and therefore not ‘objective.’
What we already know, though, is damning enough. Israel boarded civilian boats not with policemen but with commando units, trained to kill. Not in broad daylight, where much terror and confusion could have been avoided, but in the dead of night. Not in Israeli waters, where Israel has jurisdiction, or even in Gaza’s waters, where Israel claims it has jurisdiction, but in international waters where they clearly have no jurisdiction, rendering it an act of piracy and attempted hijacking.
Even so, if one or two people had been accidentally killed, I could begin to comprehend it. Nine civilians killed, many shot at close range, when they could have been tased, when the could have been shot in the legs instead of the chest or head, when the Israeli army could simply have disabled their boats’ propellers and towed them wherever they wanted to — This is, at best, another case of Israel’s brazen and constant disproportionate use of force. At worst, it is a wanton act of murder on the high seas.
And it was, either way, monumentally stupid. Indicative, I believe, of a nation that has truly gone over the edge of reason.
I’m working on a longer piece about the flotilla and its tragic fate. For now, here’s what I posted on Mondoweiss about the protests for and against the massacre in New York this week.
Protest in New York, and celebration
On May 31, the day after Israel’s bloody and unconscionable raid against civilian aid volunteers in international waters, around 1,000 people gathered in Times Square to protest. The next day, June 1, the same number showed up to protest again, meeting at 42nd Street and 2nd Avenue and marching to Times Square. The organizers had arranged for 200 feet of the street to be blocked off for the demonstration, and by the time the march began, it was overflowing. There were very few news cameras around, though, most of them from the independent and left-leaning press.
A counter-protest was held a few blocks away by people who supported Israel’s blockade of Gaza and its attack against the flotilla. A friend and I went to check it out. He suggested I hide the kuffiyeh that was hanging around my neck, but I was in no mood to cater to anyone’s delicate sensibilities after what had happened. It was a symbol of solidarity and resistance to illegal brutality, and I wore it proudly.
The right-wing protest looked as packed as the pro-justice protest, and it was surrounded by journalists, most of them apparently mainstream. One of them, well-dressed and sharply-groomed, from a local Fox station, was asking a protester what he thought about the claim by activists that the boats were attacked in international waters, and that Israel’s assault was therefore illegal. I leaned in closer, very interested to listen to his answer.
Just then a large bald man, apparently an organizer who noticed my kuffiyeh, stepped between me and the interview and asked accusingly, “Where are you from?”
I replied, “Oklahoma.”
He shook his head and rolled his eyes. “You can’t stand here. Not with that scarf. You know what it means, don’t you? It means support for terrorism.”
I laughed, because it was such an absurdist thing to say. The kind of thing you don’t expect real people to say right in front of you.
“You can’t stand here,” he repeated.
“It’s a free country,” I reminded him.
He mumbled something and walked away [to fetch the authorities]. Soon I was confronted by a huge policeman with a thick Bronx accent. “You can’t stand here,” he said. “Join the protest or step aside. They got permits for this space, they can choose who they want to be in there, and they don’t want you in there, so step aside.”
“I’m not in there,” I said. “I’m standing on the sidewalk.”
“You can’t stand there.”
“I can’t stand here because he says so?”
“Ma’am, I will lock you up for refusing to obey a legal order.”
“You’ll lock me up because I’m standing on the sidewalk?”
“This is a crosswalk, ma’am. It’s illegal to stand here. Step aside or I will arrest you.”
I nodded now that he said something halfway sensible and stepped out of the trickle of pedestrian traffic, too far away to engage or listen to the protesters except for hearing a few intermittently chanting, “Stop the flotilla, Stop the Islamic terror!”
My friend, who is Jewish, was also rustled up and kicked off the sidewalk for trying to talk to one of the protesters, with no ready excuse that he was standing in a crosswalk, because he wasn’t. He argued in vain with the same police officer (“It’s illegal to have a conversation?”), then he joined me near the curb. With no more reason to be there, we headed back to the pro-justice protest.
And that’s when the illusion was broken. The pro-Israeli-government protest had reserved as much space as the pro-justice protest. But their protesters were all crammed into about one-sixth of the space at one end, where the cameras were surrounding them. There couldn’t have been more than 150 people.
From the angle we saw as we were approaching it, it looked about as formidable as the pro-justice movement. But from the angle we saw as we were leaving it, it perfectly encapsulated the state of Israel’s government’s supporters today—surrounded by cameras, aided unquestioningly by the powers that be, with an increasingly sad, defensive, sputtering illusion of popular support.