On May 31, the Israeli military attacked a flotilla of boats full of civilians attempting to deliver humanitarian supplies to the Gaza Strip. Reports indicate that at least nine and as many as 16 of the activists on board were killed, though details remain sketchy due to Israel's censorious limitations on media coverage. Much of the U.S. media coverage has been remarkably unskeptical of Israel's account of events and their context, and has paid little regard to international law.
The New York Times (6/1/10) glossed over the facts of the devastating Israeli siege of Gaza, where 1.5 million people live in extreme poverty. As reporter Isabel Kershner wrote, "Despite sporadic rocket fire from the Palestinian territory against southern Israel, Israel says it allows enough basic supplies through border crossings to avoid any acute humanitarian crisis."
Asking Israel to explain the effects of its embargo on the people of Gaza makes little sense, especially when there are plenty of other resources available. The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported (IRIN, 5/18/10):
Water-related health problems are widespread in the Strip because of the blockade and Israel's military operation in Gaza, which destroyed water and sanitation infrastructure, including reservoirs, wells, and thousands of kilometres of piping....
Chronic malnutrition has risen in Gaza over the past few years to reach 10.2 percent....
In Gaza, Israel's blockade is debilitating the healthcare system, limiting medical supplies and the training of medical personnel and preventing serious medical cases from travelling outside the Strip for specialized treatment.
Israel's 2008-2009 military operation damaged 15 of the Strip's 27 hospitals and damaged or destroyed 43 of its 110 primary healthcare facilities, none of which have been repaired or rebuilt because of the construction materials ban. Some 15-20 percent of essential medicines are commonly out of stock and there are shortages of essential spare parts for many items of medical equipment.
Those facts, though, aren't persuasive to everyone. The Washington Post's June 1 editorial page had one of the most appalling takes on the killings: "We have no sympathy for the motives of the participants in the flotilla--a motley collection that included European sympathizers with the Palestinian cause, Israeli Arab leaders and Turkish Islamic activists."
Many of the analysis pieces in major papers focused on the fallout for Israel and the United States, rather than the civilians killed or the humanitarian crisis they were trying to address. The Post's Glenn Kessler (6/1/10) framed the U.S. response, not the Israeli attack, as the complicating factor: "Condemnation of Israeli Assault Complicates Relations With U.S." Kessler lamented, "The timing of the incident is remarkably bad for Israel and the United States," while a Los Angeles Times account (6/1/10) called the raid "a public relations nightmare for Israel." The New York Times' Kershner wrote (NYTimes.com, 5/31/10) that "the criticism [of Israel over the attack] offered a propaganda coup to Israel's foes, particularly the Hamas group that holds sway in Gaza."
Other news accounts presented misleading context about the circumstances leading to Israel's blockade. Kershner (New York Times, 6/1/10) stressed that "Israel had vowed not to let the flotilla reach the shores of Gaza, where Hamas, an organization sworn to Israel's destruction, took over by force in 2007." The Associated Press (6/1/10) reported that "Israel and Egypt sealed Gaza's borders after Hamas overran the territory in 2007, wresting control from Abbas-loyal forces"--the latter a reference to Fatah forces affiliated with Mahmoud Abbas.
Both accounts ignore the fact that Hamas won Palestinian elections in 2006, which led the United States and Israel to step up existing economic restrictions on Gaza. An attempt to stoke a civil war in Gaza by arming Fatah militants--reported extensively by David Rose in Vanity Fair (4/08)--backfired, and Hamas prevailed (Extra!, 9-10/07).
Much of the U.S. press coverage takes Israeli government claims at face value, and is based largely on footage made available by Israeli authorities--while Israel keeps the detained activists away from the media (not to mention from lawyers and worried family members). The Washington Post (6/1/10) reported the attack this way:
As Salon.com's Glenn Greenwald wrote (5/31/10): "Just ponder what we'd be hearing if Iran had raided a humanitarian ship in international waters and killed 15 or so civilians aboard."
The Times' June 1 report included seven paragraphs of Israel's account of what happened on board the Turkish ship, the Mavi Marmara, where the civilians were killed; the paper reported that "There were no immediate accounts available from the passengers of the Turkish ship" because the Israeli base they were taken to "was off limits to the news media and declared a closed military zone."
The Times piece also showed little interest in international law, mentioning Israel's claim regarding the legality of their actions but providing no analysis from any international law experts to support or debunk the claim: "Israeli officials said that international law allowed for the capture of naval vessels in international waters if they were about to violate a blockade."
According to Craig Murray (5/31/10), former British ambassador and specialist on maritime law, the legal position "is very plain": "To attack a foreign flagged vessel in international waters is illegal. It is not piracy, as the Israeli vessels carried a military commission. It is rather an act of illegal warfare."