A deadly attack by Israeli forces in international waters on a convoy of aid ships bound for Gaza has sparked international condemnation. People from many nations were on board, including aid workers, rights campaigners and prominent figures such as Irish Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Mairead Corrigan Maguire and (before she had to withdraw) 85-year-old Holocaust survivor, Hedy Epstein.
This high-profile act of violence has also drawn attention to the more low-key, but also lethal, effects of a blockade which has prevented adequate supplies of food and medicine reaching Palestinian civilians.
Though the blockade is in response to ongoing rocket attacks by Hamas, collective punishment against whole communities is against international law. It is also counterproductive. As Nick Clegg (now UK deputy prime minister) pointed out in a Guardian online article in December 2009, “How is the peace process served by sickness, mortality rates, mental trauma and malnutrition increasing in Gaza? Is it not in Israel's enlightened self-interest to relieve the humanitarian suffering?”
The attack on the convoy took place on the eve of a planned visit by the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, to the USA to meet President Barack Obama - though, amidst the furore, Netanyahu’s office announced that he had cancelled the trip. While diplomatic protests are being directed at Israel, it is highly unlikely that such defiance of international law and norms would have taken place if it were not for the special relationship with the US government over many years, which has helped to shield successive Israeli regimes from the consequences of their actions. The attack on the flotilla poses a challenge to the worldwide credibility of Obama’s administration and claims to an ethical US foreign policy.
The US government’s tendency to use its political and economic might and UN Security Council veto to support the Israeli leadership, regardless of the wisdom, morality and legality of its choices, is in part a response to domestic lobbyists and the hope of winning votes.
As well as Jewish voters committed to what they see as Israel’s interests, there are sizeable numbers in 'Christian' groups and movements which see aggressive measures by Israeli forces as a stepping stone to the fulfilment of biblical prophecies, in some cases involving death and destruction on a massive scale.
There are however, many Christian and Jewish Americans, alongside other US citizens, who deplore those Israeli policies which harm the defenceless and make peace in the Middle East harder to secure, indeed some regard their more extremist co-religionists as heretical.
There has also long been a strand in US foreign policy which views Israel as a useful regional ally and sometimes, as a source of military expertise to assist other regimes which American leaders might wish to cultivate for various reasons.
For example, a 1996 report A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm was produced by several influential figures in the USA including Richard Perle (one-time assistant Secretary of Defence under President Reagan) and Douglas Feith (who would become Under-Secretary of Defence for policy under President George W Bush). This urged a close alliance between those seeking to reinforce US dominance and the incoming Israeli government (at that time too led by Binyamin Netanyahu), including action against the Syrian and Iraqi regimes.
“While the previous government, and many abroad, may emphasise ‘land for peace’ – which placed Israel in the position of cultural, economic, political, diplomatic, and military retreat – the new government can promote Western values and traditions,” the report urged. “Such an approach, which will be well received in the United States, includes ‘peace for peace’, ‘peace through strength’ and self reliance: the balance of power… Israel – proud, wealthy, solid, and strong – would be the basis of a truly new and peaceful Middle East.”
Yet many would question whether stable peace can be achieved through domination and aggression. The long-term wellbeing of people living in Israel and Palestine and the rest of the Middle East requires concern for justice, not spectacular displays of force. The attack at the end of May 2010 on the aid convoy heading towards Gaza raises challenging questions for the US government and its international allies, as well as the Israeli regime.
© Savitri Hensman works in the voluntary sector in community care and equalities in the UK, and is also a respected writer on Christianity and social justice. Savi is an Ekklesia associate and regular columnist. She also has a regular Guardian Comment is Free column which can be found here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/profile/savitrihensman