International Implications of the Flotilla Attack: Interview with Ziyaad Lunat

Posted June 5, 2010

What are the international implications of the Israeli attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla? Ziyaad Lunat, an activist for Palestinian rights and Outreach Coordinator for the Gaza Freedom March, provides his comments below.

Ryan: Could you describe the present situation regarding the Israeli attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla?

Ziyaad Lunat: Israel illegally attacked the six-boat flotilla carrying 700 human rights activists from 40 countries in international waters on its way to deliver badly needed humanitarian aid to Gaza. This was a violent attack on unarmed civilians in international waters. Passengers included a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, a Holocaust survivor, several members of parliament, a famous Swedish author and many others. Israel cited the San Remo Manual on Armed Conflicts at Sea to justify its operation, namely the paragraph 67 (a) that permits attacks on merchant vessels on neutral countries (Turkey, US, Greece) if they are in breach of a blockade. What Israel conveniently ignored is that the San Remo Manual also contains rules governing the lawfulness of blockades and there is no authority under international law that can enforce a blockade that is unlawful. Article 102 of the Manual prohibits a blockade “the damage to the civilian population is, or may be expected to be, excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated from the blockade.”

Israel is collectively punishing the whole Palestinian population in Gaza to what Judge Goldstone termed a “crime of persecution”. Therefore, Israel’s blockade of Gaza is illegal, making Israel’s violent attacks on the flotilla illegal as well. Since the attack took place in international waters, the perpetrators have to be judged according to the national law of the flags carried by the ships, in this case of Turkey. It is expected though that Israel will evade its responsibility as usual. In fact, the latest news in the Israeli press indicate that the commando responsible for shooting the yet unknown number of casualties will be given a medal of honor.

Since Israel’s assault on Gaza at the end of 2008, Palestinians were not allowed to rebuild their houses which had been bombed by Israeli fighter jets. Many families are still living in tents because Israel refuses to allow in construction materials. Israel also does not allow in items like pens, school books, musical instruments, toys for children, coriander, and so on. Such is the arbitrariness and cruelty of the siege that entraps 1.5 million Palestinians in a heavily populated confined space, that has effectively become a concentration camp. The UN and all major human rights organizations and renowned legal experts have condemned Israel illegal siege. However, world governments have been unwilling and even complicit (as is the case of the US and EU countries) in the siege of Gaza. Citizens of conscience cannot be indifferent to the suffering of Palestinians and have, since August 2008 when the first boat was sent, made efforts to break the siege in a number of ways, including by land via Egypt—an initiative in which I was one of the organizers. The sea route has been the most promising though. The flotilla carried 10,000 tons of humanitarian supplies that Israel bans from entering Gaza. The aim of the mission was expressly political (because Israel makes delivery of aid a political issue) with the aim of breaking the siege and upholding international law.

Ryan: What hopes or expectations do you have for a full investigation of the attack? Considering the investigation that followed “Operation Cast Lead”—where over 1,400 were killed and 50,000 displaced in Gaza—was effectively nullified through pressure from Israel and the US, prospects don’t look good.

Ziyaad: The US and its allies called for Israel to conduct investigations on itself. This is ludicrous…a parallel would be to ask for a rapist to investigate his own rape. Israel has proven incapable of conducting fair investigations on its own crimes and prosecuting those responsible. This position comes in a context where the West have continuously shielded Israel from any accountability, giving it a free hand to commit crimes. The US, for example, used its veto power in the UN Security Council over forty times to shelter Israel from criticism. This hypocrisy is clear from how the US has dealt with similar cases. A few weeks ago, for example, North Korea allegedly torpedoed a South Korean Ship killing a number of South Korean servicemen. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton reacted angrily, warning North Korea of severe repercussions and threatening more sanctions. It did not ask North Korea to investigate itself. Israel’s attack is even more serious, since it was against unarmed civilians, notwithstanding the spin of the Israeli government that it was acting in “self-defense.” It has been clear from the testimony of the survivors that the only guns on board were Israeli guns and they were attacked by surprise in the middle of the night by a special assault unit. An autopsy on the victims, which included an 19-year old American, revealed that they were shot in the head (proving shoot to kill policy) and that they were sprayed with bullets. Yet, Israel faces no repercussions.

Given the inability of our governments to hold Israel accountable, the responsibility falls on people of conscience to give Israel the South African apartheid treatment. A movement of boycott, divestments and sanctions (BDS) of Israel has been growing to isolate Israel from the rest of the international community – economically, culturally, militarily and so on – until it fulfills its obligations under international law. Just this week, Swedish and South African dock workers passed a resolution to refuse to unload Israel cargo ships. Last month, musician Elvis Costello cancelled his concert in Israel as a response to appeals by activists to boycott Israel. Across the US, university students are campaigning for their universities to divest their funds from Israel. All of this is reminiscent of the anti-apartheid movement, and in the last five years alone we have made unprecedented progress.

Ryan: The governments of Egypt and Turkey have taken uncommon steps in response to the attack. What is the likelihood that these stances against Israeli policies become more permanent?

Ziyaad: Well I wouldn’t put the governments of Egypt and Turkey in the same basket. Those are two different realities. Egypt opened the Rafah border temporarily to avoid the embarrassment of being one of the parties of the siege. Mubarak, a dictator supported by the US government, has been cruelly colluding with Israel and helping police its borders. The opening of Rafah for a few days was a public relations stunt to ease the ire of ordinary Egyptians, who are powerless due to their governments oppressive policies.

Turkey has a long history of support for Israel. Both countries enjoy close ties, including military. Erdogan’s government though is reassessing that relationship towards a more just foreign policy based on the respect for international law and human rights. Only time will tell where this is going. Erdogan is in a sensitive position, as he has to strike an internal balance with a powerful military that considers itself the “guardian” of the Kamalist secular fundamentalist ideology and would not hesitate to strike a blow against the government if unhappy. No doubt though that those on the Arab and Muslim streets have been inspired by Erdogan’s principled positions, taking to task Arab countries that have been all too eager to cozy up with Israel.

Ryan: Has the critical response within Israel and among countries considered allies (European Union, and particularly Turkey) shaken the authority or hawkish stance of Netanyahu’s right-wing government at all?

Ziyaad: Israel has recently come up with the discourse of “delegitimization” – saying that any criticism of Israel threatens its apartheid structure of ethnic privilege, thus its existence. The truth is that Israel is delegitimizing itself by continuing to commit massacres and war crimes. No amount of PR or spin can hide the fact that Israel is an outlaw, showing complete disregard to international law and human rights. The US is also to blame for allowing this happen for too long. The Israeli establishment as well as the majority of Israelis are completely oblivious to this reality, maintaining a discourse of self-righteousness. These are the symptoms of a society that is out of control. Israel is becoming dangerous and is armed with nukes. I see no signs of change in the government, but a tendency towards more fascism in the long run.

Ryan: While the flotilla effort has brought international attention to the blockade of Gaza and the “humanitarian crisis” there, we should be careful to not reduce Palestinians to the role of passive victims or secondary to the conflict between aid workers and the IDF. What sort of shape does the resistance of Palestinians in Gaza take under present conditions?

Ziyaad: A civil rights movement inside Palestine is taking shape and becoming vigorous. Protests against Israel’s expropriation of land take place every week in places like Bil’in and Nabi Saleh as well as in Gaza against the Israeli-imposed buffer zone. The failure of the so-called “peace process” and the indifference of the US-imposed authority in the West Bank, has left a vacuum of justice that Palestinians are filling. The flotilla is part of this global movement of citizens challenging Israeli policies of occupation, colonization, apartheid and ethnic cleansing. Palestinian resistance is shaking Israel, being largely non-violent, Israel is now struggling to make its case to the world.

For more comments from Ziyaad Lunat, check out a recent podcast interview here. Lunat also writes regularly for Electronic Intifada.

Ryan McGinley is an activist with Movement to End Israeli Apartheid – Georgia and a member of Solidarity.