The Israeli attack on the Turkish aid convoy to Gaza, and its subsequent slaughter of the civilians on board is being condemned around the world. That the commando raid was mounted in order to prevent the delivery of medical aid, building supplies and other humanitarian assistance to the inhabitants of Gaza is particularly repulsive. The Israeli blockade in the wake of its late 2008/early 2009 military offensive has caused the Gazan economy to collapse – leaving some 70% of Gazans to subsist, as the Guardian reports, on less than $1 a day, with 75% now reliant on food aid and 60% having no daily access to water.
Some 10% of the population – many of them children – are estimated by the World Health Organisation to have been stunted by malnutrition. The Gaza blockade was denounced in December 2009 in this article written by a budding UK politician called Nick Clegg, whose response to this latest outrage will be keenly awaited.
There can be no doubt that the aid flotilla’s attempts to break the blockade were justified, on humanitarian grounds. The justification offered for the blockade by the Israelis has been the rocket attacks emanating from Gaza – these rockets have, by the best estimate I can find, have killed about 20 people inside Israel since 2001, at a rate of just over 2 a year. These indiscriminate rocket attacks on civilians were roundly condemned by the Goldstone Report to the UN last year.
However, the Israeli response has not only been disproportionate – over 1100 Palestinians were killed in its Gaza military offensive, a third of them children – but the subsequent use of collective punishment against the Gaza population, as the Goldstone Report also said, could well be held by a competent court to constitute a crime against humanity.
The attack on the aid flotilla is consistent with such brutality. The use of live ammunition by Israeli commandos against people armed at best, with iron bars – to an extent where 19 people have been killed – is also disproportionate. So far, the New Zealand response has been to condemn the use of violence and especially to decry the loss of life in the incident.
“I am taking immediate steps to communicate the government’s concerns over this incident to the government of Israel,… We support the calls made by other countries for a full investigation into the incident.” Foreign Minister McCully has said.
All well and good. In the circumstances though, it would also be appropriate for New Zealand to call on Israel to lift the Gaza blockade. If the siege can now be lifted, the loss of life among the aid flotilla might not have been entirely in vain. Anything less than condemning the blockade would seem to make us complicit by our silence, in the collective punishment of the people of Gaza.
The situation was set out by Justice Goldstone in the covering letter to his report to the UN last year :
The Mission decided that in order to understand the effect of the Israeli military operations on the infrastructure and economy of Gaza, and especially its food supplies, it was necessary to have regard to the effects of the blockade that Israel has imposed on the Gaza Strip for some years and has been tightened since Hamas became the controlling authority of Gaza.
The Mission found that the attack on the only remaining flour producing factory, the destruction of a large part of the Gaza egg production, the bulldozing of huge tracts of agricultural land, and the bombing of some two hundred industrial facilities, could not on any basis be justified on military grounds. Those attacks had nothing whatever to do with the firing of rockets and mortars at Israel.
The Mission looked closely and sets out in the Report statements made by Israeli political and military leaders in which they stated in clear terms that they would hit at the “Hamas infrastructure”.
If “infrastructure” were to be understood in that way and become a justifiable military objective, it would completely subvert the whole purpose of IHL built up over the last 100 years and more. It would make civilians and civilian buildings justifiable targets.
These attacks amounted to reprisals and collective punishment and constitute war crimes.
Therefore, it seems reasonable to ask – does New Zealand support the Gaza blockade, or condemn it? Does it agree with the government of Turkey that the attempts by the flotilla to break the siege of Gaza were appropriate, and justified? Given our links to Turkey in the wake of our Anzac Day commemorations, a statement of support from New Zealand would be widely appreciated, and well publicised in that part of the world.
Footnote. In last week’s Scoop report on the aid flotilla, I mistyped the first name of the captured Israeli soldier as Gideon Shalit when he is, of course, Gilad Shalit.