A peculiar reference has emerged from Israel’s murderous weekend siege of a group of civilian ships in international waters: the lynch mob. The metaphor, though, has not been conjured to describe the actions of the Israeli military, which killed at least nine people after soldiers descended from helicopters onto a flotilla carrying aid to Gaza. Rather, defenders of the raid, and those who argue that this brutality was exceptional in the larger scheme of Israeli policy, have compared the activists on board the boats to a marauding pack of bandits.
"I describe it as a lynch," Israeli Defense Forces spokesperson Avital Leibovitch proclaimed in describing how the armed commandos were greeted as they stormed human rights activists. In the Israeli context, lynching is a clear reference to the still raw event at the start of the second Intifada in 2000 when two IDF soldiers were hanged to death. For most of the rest of the world, it calls upon the United States’ own sordid racial past.
Leibovitch’s conjecture, which Israeli officials and their American defenders have since repeated, is a bald attempt to cram this story into a worn, but still effective frame: Israel as the perpetual victim. Whether this standard defense will hold up to scrutiny this time, considering that those who died were international human rights activists, is yet to be seen. But it is this notion that pushes the U.S. to continue supporting a regime that last year attacked Gaza with a mix of bombs and chemical weapons and has now murdered civilians in international waters.
The American policy standard is to turn a blind eye to Israeli violence. And when the violence is too great or too egregious to ignore, the U.S. hides behind false moral equivalencies like the one Leibovitch hoped to invoke between the actions of armed commandos and unarmed civilians. It’s a calculated attempt, as a Haaretz editorial about plans to stop the Flotilla put it last week, to give "the impression that Israel, not Gaza, is under a brutal siege."
There should be no real question that what the Israeli Navy did on Sunday was an act of unacceptable violence. In the middle of the night, Israeli Black Hawk helicopters swarmed the six-ship flotilla, which carried 700 civilians, including a Nobel Prize laureate and a smattering of European politicians*, as well as 10,000 tons of aid headed for blockaded Gaza. According to some reports, the helicopters opened fire from the air. IDF soldiers then descended from ropes onto the decks and on the largest of the boats–the Mavi Marmara, a ship carrying Turkey’s flag–Israel claims the commandos were so threatened that they needed to kill at least nine people.
The passengers were taken to an Israeli port and detained. Some have been let out and returned to their countries, but others have apparently destroyed their documentation in a statement of non-compliance. Activists who have already been released have described the use of electric shocks by IDF soldiers. One Turkish activist said, "The ship turned into a lake of blood." A member of former British MP George Galloway’s staff told me that a British activist aboard the Mavi Marmara called from the vessel reporting at least 20 people dead or missing. When Galloway’s staffer called back, the British citizen said it was too dangerous to talk on the phone now that the Israelis had seized the ships. The names of those who were killed have not yet been released.
The Israeli government says that the flotilla’s intent to breach the blockade–which has turned Gaza into a mix of open-air prison and live target-firing range for the last three years–threatened the country’s security. Leibovitch said the activists on the ship attacked the soldiers with clubs, knives, tools and even live ammunition. The Turkish government insists there is no way guns were aboard the ships, because the vessels had been thoroughly inspected before leaving port; Israel counters that IDF soldiers were shot at, with the same guns they brought to wield at the unarmed passengers. In any case, those aboard the ship, including a former German MP, say that only a few passengers attempted to resist the raid and did so using sticks.
That, it seems, amounts to "a lynch." Israel’s U.S. defenders have latched on to the metaphor as well. Jackson Diehl, an editorial page editor at The Washington Post, wrote yesterday that Obama should be "quietly working to restrain the UN Security Council from a lynch-mob-style response." This despite the UN’s cautiously worded response, in which it called the raid an "act" and urged a "prompt, impartial, credible and transparent investigation."
Likening a UN declaration decrying an attack on civilians to a lynching requires an absurdly reductive view, one which freezes Israel in a state of constant victimhood and moral uprightness. It’s a notion the robust pro-Israel lobby has firmly established in the U.S. political psyche. And the blind exceptionalism that it fosters in Washington informs policy, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s response to the attack–the most benign, noncommittal and blameless statement imaginable. "I think the situation from our perspective is very difficult and requires careful, thoughtful responses from all concerned," Clinton declared lamely.
The Israeli effort to make the flotilla activists responsible for their own killings intentionally obscures and complicates what is an otherwise simple story. Israel is willing to kill international civilians to defend its Gaza blockade, which has itself become an unusually brutal kind of collective punishment, sequestering almost 1.5 million people in a plot of land that’s only 25 miles long and 6 miles wide.
According to Amnesty International, growing poverty and unemployment and rising food prices have left 80 percent of Gaza’s population dependent on humanitarian aid for basic survival and 60 percent facing hunger. That means the blockade cuts off the only lifeline for hundreds of thousands of people. The UN has called the policy "unsustainable" and Amnesty International has called it a violation of International law.
Yet, Israel and it’s supporters maintain that it is the embattled party and invoke histories of racial violence in the U.S. to drive home the idea. It is, of course, true that race matters to the Israeli and Palestinian conflict. The U.S. was able to look away as Israel killed almost 1,400 people and destroyed tens of thousands of buildings in its three-week long 2009 bombardment of Gaza in no small part because Palestinians have been caricatured as dangerous, heartless terrorists who respond only to violence. If we were not so seeped in images of Arabs and Muslims as terrorists and terrorists alone, the U.S. government might have had a harder time ignoring the massive solidarity protests in cities across the country. Our government might be more uneasy as the only member of the Security Council to refrain from demanding an end to the blockade.
Now, the Israeli government is committed to stopping the delivery of aid to Gazans who do not even have the supplies to rebuild the homes decimated by its last "act." It considers the political consequences of a blockade breach so great that, with two more ships headed to Gaza, an IDF officer told the Jerusalem Post that Israel plans to "come prepared in the future as if it was a war." Regardless of whether the Israeli government initially planned to kill unarmed human rights activists, apparently it does now.
It’s clear that outside of the U.S., at least, shifting rhetorical blame to the slain activists won’t be enough to tamp down outrage. So Defense Minister Ehud Barak is emerging as the likely target for a secondary source of blame. But Israel’s murderous raid is not about one bad apple. It’s the result, in part, of a discourse bound up in false moral equivalencies that has for too long allowed the country to act with impunity. The blockade is indeed "unsustainable." So is the notion that a country that violates international law, kills civilians in mass and attacks civilians in international waters is a victim.
*An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that a Holocaust survivor was aboard one of the boats in the six-ship flotilla.
Photo: Reuters/Muhammad Hamed