Sunday, June 17, 2012

Nine killed, two reports and one siege

State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss revealed serious failures in the decision making process which led on the night of May 31, 2010 to a lethal assault in international waters, with Israeli commandos launched at what the Israeli media dubbed "the Turkish Flotilla" (ignoring the sailors from at least ten other countries that participated in it). The Comptroller found that the Inner Cabinet, which is supposed by law to approve such actions, was not convened at all. The National Security Agency which is supposed by law to prepare for such decisions and examine thoroughly the possible courses of actions and their implications remained was completely left out. There was only one ministerial meeting, held in an improvised manner at the last moment, and also there the full facts and considerations were not presented. In short, the decision was taken in a highly amateurish way.

In fact, the only real plan prepared was
designed by a junior officer who was given a purely tactical military problem, i.e. how to seize control of a ship at sea, and was not concerned with wider issue. The higher echelons, who were supposed to address the wider issues, simply approved the plan provided by the military without much of a discussion or criticism. And the plan which was approved and implemented turned out to be a complete fiasco. Israeli troops killed Turkish citizens (one of whom was also a U.S. citizen), some of them by shooting at point blank range to "confirm a kill".  And it seems nobody thought or anticipated that the tactical action would have a strategic result – namely, driving the final nail into the coffin of the strategic alliance with Turkey, which had been a cornerstone of Israel's policy for some fifty years.

The State Comptroller determined that the Israeli worldwide Hasbara network effectively collapsed, did not  function properly and failed to perform the task assigned to it, i.e. to provide a good explanation  (which is what "hasbara" means) and thereby convince the world of the justification of the actions taken by the State of Israel and by its armed forces and its navy and the navy's elite commandos. It was too much also for the State Comptroller to consider  the chilling possibility that some acts just cannot be explained or plausibly whitewashed - not even by the most skilled and eloquent of propagandists and jugglers of words. Not even when the good old cliches are repeated a hundred or a thousand times, "a small country surrounded by enemies" and "the only democracy in the Middle East" and "Axis of Evil" and "Decisive war against Global Terrorism." It is especially very difficult indeed to explain to the world why the State of Israel maintains an occupation over millions of Palestinians for more than two thirds of its existence, and continually builds and expands settlements in the Occupied Territories, and also expands enforcement of this occupation rule into the Mediterranean, to international waters tens of kilometers from its shores.

Together with his team of investigators, State Comptroller Lindenstrauss examined in depth how the decision was reached on how to implement the takeover of the Turkish ship "Mavi Marmara" and other ships in the "flotilla". But he did not conceive his role and his authority as including also the reasons for the more fundamental decision to block the path of this flotilla and  prevent it at all costs from reaching the shores of Gaza. Certainly he did not examine the more fundamental decision to impose a naval blockade on the shores of the Gaza Strip and instruct the Navy of the State of Israel to cruise and patrol and take over by force each and every vessel from the outside seeking to reach the coast of Gaza, as well as any Gazan vessel  trying to sail out to sea. And most certainly the Comptroller did not think of checking the essential decision to impose and maintain a blockade on the Gaza Strip by land and sea and air, when exactly was the decision made to do so, and by whom. Whether it was the best and wisest decision, and whether it should be re-examined in light of the experience of five years.

Gisha – a human rights organization specializing in issues of access (and denial of it) and having its own skilled team of investigators – took up some of the issues which the State Comptroller avoided. A comprehensive report published in the same week  summing up  five years of Gaza closure.  

Gazans nowadays have more of a possibility of traveling to the outside world (and coming back) than they had a few years ago. Such traveling is carried out exclusively via Egypt and its extension owes more to drastic political changes in Egypt than to any change in Israeli policy. Since access to Gaza via sea and air remains completely blocked, Gazan access to the outside world is hostage to possible shifts in Egyptian politics and policy, which neither the Egyptians themselves nor anybody else could in any way predict.

The export and import of goods – essential for running any modern economy – is still severely hampered for Gazans. The productive sectors are paralyzed, unemployment in the first quarter of 2012 stands at 31.5%, and 58.9% among those aged 25-29. Unsurprisingly, more than 70% of the population in Gaza receives humanitarian aid. True, Israel allows consumer goods more generously into Gaza Strip than used to be the case before the flotilla affair, but  many Gazans can't afford them.

Relatively affluent Gazans are those who have a government job, being paid either by the locally-based Hamas government or its Fatah rival based in Ramallah. The salaries from either source depend ultimately on the ability and willingness of the two Palestinian governments' respective outside donors to continue pouring in money. There is little the Gazans can do under the present circumstances to build up their own economy.

There had been a time when official Israeli policy considered it as in Israel's own interest to facilitate Palestinians building up their own economy. The man who used to be identified with such ideas is at the moment Israel's President, but of the ideas themselves hardly a shred remains. For example, regarding the West Bank and Gaza Strip as a single territorial and economic unit, as specifically stated in the Oslo Agreement which are in theory still in force, or facilitating the building of a deep-water port in Gaza for which international companies competed in the 1990's.

Nowadays, the byword in Israeli government circles is the opposite – separation. A virtually complete separation between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, as well as between it and Israel. The big border crossing which Israel erected at Erez with considerable expanse stands barred and empty. The only exception are "exceptional humanitarian cases" (and one needs to be in a very serious condition indeed to be accepted as such) and a hundred especially favored "senior merchants".

The prohibition on Gazans to enter Israel are of course justified by "security reasons", even though suicide bombings are clearly off the Palestinian agenda nowadays. But it avails Gazans little to try bypassing Israeli territory and get into the West Bank by the long way around, via Jordan – their entry by that route is strictly forbidden, too. The West Bank, which used to be the best and most accessible market for Gaza  goods, has now become completely inaccessible. And restrictions on travel between Gaza and the West Bank also sever the familial, educational and cultural ties that bind the Palestinian society together. Of course, this policy is greatly helped by the political division among Palestinians themselves and the existence of two rival governments in Gaza and Ramallah – both having a far from complete ability to govern. It is not by chance that in 2006 and 2007 the government of Israel did all it could to help fan the flames of Palestinian civil war, and that it is now staunchly opposed to efforts to forge Palestinian unity.

Israeli officials to whom the Gisha researchers and activists talked in the past two years are increasingly speaking of the Gaza-West Bank "Separation Policy", though none can point out where and by whom such a policy was decided upon and what its aims are. Without the State Comptroller digging deeply into the decision-making process, it would still not be far-fetched to guess that neither the Inner Cabinet nor the National Security Agency had any hand in this decision, either.