article

06.01.10

Israel's Indefensible Behavior

Don’t blame the commandos for the flotilla disaster. Blame Israel’s leaders, who enforce the cruel and corrupt Gaza embargo, and their supporters in America.

“If the soul is left in darkness, sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he who commits the sin but he who causes the darkness.” In the late 1960s, when America’s cities burned, Martin Luther King often quoted that line, which he borrowed from Victor Hugo. But it applies equally well to the catastrophe that occurred yesterday in international waters off the Gaza Strip.

It is not the Israeli naval commandos who should be judged guilty. Upon dismounting their helicopter onto the Turkish-flagged Mavi Marmara, they found themselves, unexpectedly, in the belly of an armed mob. Anyone who thinks American troops would have acted with greater restraint should cast their mind back to October 1993, when U.S. Special Forces rappelled down from their Black Hawk helicopters into a sea of Somali militiamen, and killed or wounded perhaps a thousand of them as they shot their way to safety.

In the name of solidarity, we have practiced denial. In the name of anti-terrorism, we have justified the brutalization of innocents.

No, the guilt lies with the Israeli leaders who oversee the Gaza embargo, and with Israel’s American supporters, who have averted their eyes. Yesterday’s events are the most dramatic example yet of why the epidemic of not watching must end.

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The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations greeted news of the flotilla disaster by repeating a common “pro-Israel” talking point: that Israel only blockades Gaza to prevent Hamas from building rockets that might kill Israeli citizens. If only that were true. In reality, the embargo has a broader and more sinister purpose: to impoverish the people of Gaza, and thus turn them against Hamas. As the Israeli newspaper Haaretz has reported, the Israeli officials in charge of the embargo adhere to what they call a policy of “no prosperity, no development, no humanitarian crisis.” In other words, the embargo must be tight enough to keep the people of Gaza miserable, but not so tight that they starve.

This explains why Israel prevents Gazans from importing, among other things, cilantro, sage, jam, chocolate, French fries, dried fruit, fabrics, notebooks, empty flowerpots and toys, none of which are particularly useful in building Kassam rockets. It’s why Israel bans virtually all exports from Gaza, a policy that has helped to destroy the Strip’s agriculture, contributed to the closing of some 95 percent of its factories, and left more 80 percent of its population dependent on food aid. It’s why Gaza’s fishermen are not allowed to travel more than three miles from the coast, which dramatically reduces their catch. And it’s why Israel prevents Gazan students from studying in the West Bank, a policy recently denounced by 10 winners of the prestigious Israel Prize. There’s a name for all this: collective punishment.

Israel does not deserve all the blame for Gaza’s impoverishment. Gaza’s other neighbor, Egypt, imposes an embargo of its own, though less effectively. And Hamas has been known to confiscate goods meant for Gaza’s poor. But none of that excuses Israel’s role in keeping Gaza destitute. Far from a well-crafted policy, the Gaza embargo has become something you might find in a University of Chicago seminar about the perversions inherent in interfering with free trade. As Haaretz detailed in a remarkable investigative report last summer, the embargo is not merely arbitrary (Gazans can import cinnamon, but not chocolate), it is corrupt. When Israeli farmers have surplus supply, they seek loopholes for the goods they wish to sell. Israeli officials allow Gazans to import Israeli products, but not the materials necessary to make those products themselves, since that would threaten Israel’s hold on the Gazan market. As the Israeli human-rights group Gisha has noted, Gazans can buy Israeli-made tomato paste, but cannot buy the empty cans necessary to preserve and market their own, which would compete with Israeli suppliers.

If all this were actually turning the people of Gaza against Hamas, perhaps—perhaps—it might have a cold-blooded justification. But if there is anything that the U.S. has learned from its half-century long embargo of Cuba, it is that policies of collective punishment don’t turn people against their regimes. To the contrary, they usually offer those regimes an excuse for their inability to govern.

So it has been with Hamas. The embargo was designed to weaken the organization, and bolster Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. But, in fact, Abbas himself is reportedly considering a visit to Gaza in an effort to bring Hamas into a national unity government. Besides the ordinary men, women, and children of Gaza, in fact, the entity that the embargo has most weakened is Israel. It threatens to rupture the Jewish State’s vital alliance with Turkey, whose government was furious about the embargo even before yesterday’s attack killed several of its nationals. It has wrecked Israel’s relations with Qatar, which offered to re-establish trade ties if Israel allowed the Gulf State to send supplies to Gaza. And now it has produced a public-relations disaster that will further destroy Israel’s reputation around the world.

The Gaza embargo—as currently constituted—is indefensible, which is why Israel’s American supporters have not so much defended it as pretended it was something other than what it really is. In the name of solidarity, we have practiced denial. In the name of anti-terrorism, we have justified the brutalization of innocents. Now all of us who enabled Israel’s callous, reckless policy are reaping what we sowed. Don’t blame the Israeli commandos for what happened yesterday on the high seas; blame us.

Peter Beinart is author of The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.