On May 31, the Israeli military
attacked a flotilla of boats full of civilians attempting to deliver
humanitarian supplies to the Gaza Strip. Reports indicate that at least
nine and as many as 16 of the activists on board were killed, though
details remain sketchy due to Israel's censorious limitations on media
coverage. Much of the U.S. media coverage has been remarkably
unskeptical of Israel's account of events and their context, and has
paid little regard to international law.
The New York Times (6/1/10) glossed
over the facts of the devastating Israeli siege of Gaza, where 1.5
million people live in extreme poverty. As reporter Isabel Kershner
wrote, "Despite sporadic rocket fire from the Palestinian territory
against southern Israel, Israel says it allows enough basic supplies
through border crossings to avoid any acute humanitarian crisis."
Asking Israel to explain the effects of its embargo on the people of
Gaza makes little sense, especially when there are plenty of other
resources available. The U.N. Office for the Coordination of
Humanitarian Affairs reported (IRIN, 5/18/10):
As a consequence of Israel's blockade of the
Gaza Strip, 98 percent of industrial operations have been shut down
since 2007 and there are acute shortages of fuel, cash, cooking gas and
other basic supplies....
Water-related health problems are widespread in the Strip because of the
blockade and Israel's military operation in Gaza, which destroyed water
and sanitation infrastructure, including reservoirs, wells, and
thousands of kilometres of piping....
Chronic malnutrition has risen in Gaza over the past few years to reach
In Gaza, Israel's blockade is debilitating the healthcare system,
limiting medical supplies and the training of medical personnel and
preventing serious medical cases from travelling outside the Strip for
Israel's 2008-2009 military operation damaged 15 of the Strip's 27
hospitals and damaged or destroyed 43 of its 110 primary healthcare
facilities, none of which have been repaired or rebuilt because of the
construction materials ban. Some 15-20 percent of essential medicines
are commonly out of stock and there are shortages of essential spare
parts for many items of medical equipment.
Those facts, though, aren't persuasive to everyone. The Washington Post's June 1 editorial page had
one of the most appalling takes on the killings: "We have no sympathy
for the motives of the participants in the flotilla--a motley collection
that included European sympathizers with the Palestinian cause, Israeli
Arab leaders and Turkish Islamic activists."
Many of the analysis pieces in major papers focused on the fallout for
Israel and the United States, rather than the civilians killed or the
humanitarian crisis they were trying to address. The Post's Glenn Kessler (6/1/10) framed the
U.S. response, not the Israeli attack, as the complicating factor:
"Condemnation of Israeli Assault Complicates Relations With U.S."
Kessler lamented, "The timing of the incident is remarkably bad for
Israel and the United States," while a Los
Angeles Times account (6/1/10) called the raid "a public
relations nightmare for Israel." The New York
Times' Kershner wrote (NYTimes.com,
5/31/10) that "the criticism [of Israel over the attack]
offered a propaganda coup to Israel's foes, particularly the Hamas group
that holds sway in Gaza."
Other news accounts presented misleading context about the circumstances
leading to Israel's blockade. Kershner (New
York Times, 6/1/10) stressed that "Israel had vowed not to let
the flotilla reach the shores of Gaza, where Hamas, an organization
sworn to Israel's destruction, took over by force in 2007." The Associated Press (6/1/10) reported that
"Israel and Egypt sealed Gaza's borders after Hamas overran the
territory in 2007, wresting control from Abbas-loyal forces"--the latter
a reference to Fatah forces affiliated with Mahmoud Abbas.
Both accounts ignore the fact that Hamas won Palestinian elections in
2006, which led the United States and Israel to step up existing
economic restrictions on Gaza. An attempt to stoke a civil war in Gaza
by arming Fatah militants--reported extensively by David Rose in Vanity Fair (4/08)--backfired, and Hamas prevailed (Extra!, 9-10/07).
Much of the U.S. press coverage takes Israeli government claims at face
value, and is based largely on footage made available by Israeli
authorities--while Israel keeps the detained activists away from the
media (not to mention from lawyers and
worried family members). The Washington
Post (6/1/10) reported the attack this way:
Upon touching down, the Israeli commandos,
who were equipped with paint guns and pistols, were assaulted with steel
poles, knives and pepper spray. Video showed at least one commando
being lifted up and dumped from the ship's upper deck to the lower deck.
Some commandos later said they jumped into the water to escape being
beaten. The Israeli military said some of the demonstrators fired live
ammunition. Israeli officials said the activists had fired two guns
stolen from the troops.
As Salon.com's Glenn Greenwald wrote (5/31/10): "Just ponder what we'd be hearing if Iran had
raided a humanitarian ship in international waters and killed 15 or so
The Times' June 1 report included
seven paragraphs of Israel's account of what happened on board the
Turkish ship, the Mavi Marmara, where the civilians were killed;
the paper reported that "There were no immediate accounts available from
the passengers of the Turkish ship" because the Israeli base they were
taken to "was off limits to the news media and declared a closed
The Times piece also showed little
interest in international law, mentioning Israel's claim regarding the
legality of their actions but providing no analysis from any
international law experts to support or debunk the claim: "Israeli
officials said that international law allowed for the capture of naval
vessels in international waters if they were about to violate a
According to Craig Murray (5/31/10), former British ambassador and specialist on
maritime law, the legal position "is very plain": "To attack a foreign
flagged vessel in international waters is illegal. It is not piracy, as
the Israeli vessels carried a military commission. It is rather an act
of illegal warfare."