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David's Slingshot

“All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the Lord saves; for the battle is the Lord’s, and he will give all of you into our hands.” — 1 Samuel 17:47

I’ve heard the Palestinians called “Hitler’s last victims.” That starts to get at the history of all this — the seed that sprouts anew every generation. Israel, born of the Holocaust, brings to the world not some new way of envisioning a nation, not an experiment in compassion between and among peoples, but the old cruelty, the old wish to be rid of an inconvenience, to grind a defenseless “enemy” out of existence.

Maybe the Gaza blockade, which has wreaked economic devastation on the region, destroyed its infrastructure and kept one and a half million people “food insecure” for the last year and a half, will now be broken by world opinion. Let us hope so, for Israel’s sake as well as the Palestinians’.

The conceit of bullies is that they’re the victims. No matter how well armed they are, no matter how gross the power imbalance they exploit, they live in perpetual suspicion and fear. Scott Ewing, one of the Iraq war vets who testified at the Winter Soldier gathering in Silver Spring, Md., in 2008, gave a small example of this when he spoke of the humiliating, dead-of-night house searches he participated in:

“We generally trashed the houses we went through. In the end, we found no evidence of foreign fighters, no weapons caches,” he said. But in one house, the heavily armed intruders did find a stash of saws and axes. His CO ordered him to take a photo, muttering “Why would anyone have this many saws?”

I thought of this story — we invade Iraq, confiscate its hand tools — as I read about, and watched video clips of, the hysterical Israeli damage control following its raid on the Freedom Flotilla in international waters four days ago. Yes, Uzi-wielding Israeli commandos were lowered from helicopters onto one of the ships at midnight. Yes, they fired into the crowd of unarmed humanitarian aid workers on the deck, killing at least nine of them, and maybe twice that number.

But as you can clearly see from the video clips, the people on the Mavi Marmara were hostile and just plain not nice to the commandos. They tossed one of them over the rail. What’s more, the Israelis later released photos of, as NPR described it, “a cache of slingshots, sticks, knives and gas masks” found on the ship.

Slingshots? Suddenly the story gets biblical. Perhaps the Israelis, of all people, have reason to tremble at the power of a slingshot. David, thus armed as he stood otherwise naked before Goliath, who was armed to the teeth and encased in serious battle gear, explained why in the words quoted at the beginning of this column: “. . . it is not by sword or spear that the Lord saves.”

The biblical story, of course, ends with Goliath face down in the dirt in the Valley of Elah, a stone from David’s slingshot having penetrated his forehead — the giant warrior’s lone vulnerable spot. Israel’s high command obviously fears the same fate, but that’s always the problem when you reduce religious mythology to a linear set of moral prescriptions.

Once you’ve decided to be Goliath, the lesson to be learned from this story is clear: Confiscate all the damn slingshots. And in the modern era, milk them while you’re at it for all the PR value you can. But “the Lord” — or the life force of the universe — works in mysterious ways, which cannot be gamed, though, Lord knows, we try.

For instance, in July 1947, the British Navy was confronted by a defiant but unarmed ship of Jewish refugees — Holocaust survivors — who were intent on emigrating to colonial Palestine. As Robert Mackey explains on the New York Times’ Lede Blog, the Brits responded to the incursion of the Exodus 1947 with the bravado of empire, seizing the ship, killing three people and wounding dozens of others.

The “violent way the British Navy seized that ship and deported the refugees backfired, creating global sympathy for the plight of stateless Jews,” Mackey explained. Shortly afterward, the New York Times headlined a story on the incident: “Naval Boarding Party Shot at Jews Whose Weapons Were Potatoes, Canned Goods.”

Israel, likewise, has begun to reap consequences for its violent defense of its immoral blockade of Gaza, including serious damage to the tense alliances it has with neighboring Muslim states. Turkey — four of whose citizens were killed in the raid — recalled its ambassador and canceled planned joint military exercises. Egypt reopened the Rafah border crossing into Gaza. Global awareness of the blockade has spread and Israel has grown more geopolitically isolated (though as yet has failed to destroy relations with its superpower benefactor, the United States).

Will such consequences break the blockade? I hope that happens, of course, but know that the mission of the Freedom Flotilla, and those that will follow, also has a bigger reach: to change the world. The bullies are surrounded. They can confiscate their adversaries’ slingshots, but not their courage.

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