By Alan Sabrosky*
June 30, 2009
Israel's boarding and capture in international waters of The Spirit of Humanity, an unarmed boat carrying relief supplies to the suffering people of Gaza, shows that state-sponsored piracy is a real peril today. It is just one more breach of international law added to the global "rap sheet" of a rogue state that, as Netanyahu remarked a few weeks ago, is not like other countries. But Israel's capture of this boat was also Netanyahu's test of Obama's resolve -- a test Obama failed, to his shame and discredit.
The Past as Prologue
It isn't the first time Israel has done something like this. Virtually everyone who manages to get into Gaza is appalled by the destruction and suffering there. Most of the destruction occurred during Israel's savage onslaught against Gaza six months ago, accompanied by applause from the US Congress and the Bush Administration, and silence from President-elect Obama. Most of the suffering, before and since that attack, occurred because of the blockade Israel has imposed on Gaza, reducing the flow of basic necessities to a bare minimum and post-attack recovery aid to a meaningless trickle.
A key part of this policy of strangulation has been Israel's naval blockade of Gaza's coast and its interception, removal or capture of several small boats attempting to bring humanitarian assistance to the population of Gaza. Tuesday's totally illegal seizure of The Spirit of Humanity was relatively restrained -- they merely intercepted and surrounded the boat in international waters at night, electronically disrupted its onboard navigational devices, then boarded and captured the ship and crew, including several Americans. In the past, they've rammed and nearly sunk relief boats (December 2008) or beaten the crew after boarding it (February 2009). Israel always denies wrongdoing and claims it was intercepting war material -- the olive trees carried on The Spirit of Humanity doubtless being camouflaged missiles.
The Present as Portent
Israel's blockade of the Gaza coast is a violation of international law, of course, as is boarding a peaceful ship in international waters under threat of armed attack, and Israel's treatment of Gaza overall. There is no ambiguity whatsoever in these matters, which is why Israel never cooperates with any international effort to investigate them -- even when a UN commission is headed by a Jewish jurist (from South Africa) with impeccable credentials. Israel, like all the truly guilty throughout history, dares not let its actions be exposed officially. But owning most of the US Congress and a major part of the mainstream media apparently means, to them, never having to say you're sorry.
This incident, however, had the potential to be different. It is not just that piracy in any form is commonly viewed as a plague. It is that few principles are so embedded in US tradition as that of the freedom of the seas, and with it the inviolability of US citizens. Some of the earliest victories two centuries ago by the fledgling American Republic were over the Barbary pirates of North Africa, and the US has joined in combating piracy recently off Somalia. Moreover, Obama himself has been something of a cipher to Israel -- not so much because of what he has done (they haven't lost a penny or a bullet in US aid under him), but because of uncertainty concerning his character and his intentions. A test of the new president was clearly in order.
And this was that test. The US knew The Spirit of Humanity was en route to Gaza and that Americans were aboard. The US also knew that Israeli gunboats were en route to intercept the relief ship, and that the interception would occur in international waters. The US understood that the Israelis would not simply send their gunboats out and then recall them, absent outside pressure. And once those gunboats surrounded and began assailing the relief ship, the only question was whether they would ram and perhaps sink it, or board and capture it and the people aboard, unless the US intervened.
If Obama seriously meant to change the US role in the region and the dynamics of the conflict, this was the time and place to take a stand. A single call to Netanyahu might have caused the Israelis to abort the attack. A single US destroyer or frigate from the 6th Fleet, with orders to enforce international law and protect The Spirit of Humanity in international waters, thereby safeguarding US citizens, absolutely would have done it. An open encounter with a US warship would inevitably have unpleasant consequences for the Israelis, costing them several gunboats and opening a can of political worms they dare not allow the American public to see -- and it is a great pity that did not happen.
But it didn't. Obama kept quiet, as he did during the Gaza onslaught -- perhaps he is writing a book called Profiles in Silence? -- the US 6th Fleet did nothing, and the world has the joy of yet another successful Israeli act of piracy and breach of international law. Netanyahu and Lieberman must be laughing. Their prisoners, including American citizens abandoned yet again by their government, are not. And neither are the oppressed Palestinians.
The suffering in Gaza needs to end, but the rest of the world needs to realize that they can expect little or no tangible help from the US, at least for the present. Obama may have good intentions, and his words are good, but his policies increasingly give them the lie. Perhaps Israel's crimes are too complex for him to grasp. More likely, he is politically incapable of holding it to account. If any other country did what Israel has done here and in Gaza, Obama would likely treat it as an act of war, or at least do to it what NATO did to Yugoslavia in the 1990s. But not Israel, not now, and certainly not by Israel's sitting president pro tempore in the White House.*Alan Sabrosky (Ph.D, University of Michigan) is a ten-year US Marine Corps veteran and a graduate of the US Army War College.