By Pierre Marthinus
The bullets fired by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) officers seemed to have ricocheted, creating moral as well as diplomatic repercussions that are hurting Israel’s international credibility, reputation and support. The use of force against non-combatant civilians, resulting in at least nine deaths, 50 injuries and more than 500 detained, made the clash deemed unlawful as well as excessively disproportionate against the size and imminence of the threats posed by the so called “freedom flotilla.”
A great deal of international reaction, ranging from regrets for the unnecessary loss of innocent lives to strong condemnations demanding full responsibility, had been voiced by the international community towards measures taken by Israel to enforce its blockade of Gaza. The number of condemnations by statesmen, recalling of ambassadors, cancelling of joint military practice, statements by UN officials, as well as protests staged in many countries indicated a level of criticism that had never been seen before against Israel’s use of force.
However, the violent clash between IDF and activists on board the Mavi Marmara seemed more likely to have been unintended rather than premeditated. On one side, the emotional response from activists seemed to have resulted from the IDF boarding the Mavi Marmara, a flagged ship in international waters, in a pirate-like manner. On the other side, escalating hostilities shown towards those attempting to board the ship resulted in the use of violence by IDF officers in self-defence.
The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs emphasized Israel’s right to enforce its blockade of Gaza to ensure further protection of its own people. The San Remo Memorandum (1994) indicates that the actions done by the “freedom flotillas” had made it a legitimate military objective, mostly because it was charging towards a blockaded area despite warnings and that its humanitarian operations was not based on “agreements between the belligerent parties.”
Furthermore, Israel acts upon its right to intercept vessels suspected of being used for smuggling arms, ammunitions, drugs and other illegal materials in support of Hamas. Israel needed the assurance that the 10,000 tons of humanitarian aid were not 10,000 tons of arms, ammunition or rockets that Hamas could later lob into Israel’s territory.
Regardless of its true intention, simple materials delivered along with humanitarian aid, such as cement or fertilizers, can and had been used as instruments in carrying out terrorist attacks in the past. The sophistication of terrorist weapons will continue to be in their simplicity, implying that Israel’s paranoia is not without grounds.
As a country surrounded by neighbours that are hostile, or had been hostile in the past, Israel relies heavily on the use of its military power for its existence. Measures taken by Israel usually stem from its three main considerations, which are national sovereignty, interest and security. However, such considerations still do not explain why Israel had to breach the two predominant criteria in the use of force against non-combatants.
Israel seemed to have failed to employ an efficient non-violent and non-lethal approach, which probably can be done simply by temporarily sabotaging the ships’ engines, rendering them immobile and unable to reach Gaza. In contrast, activists on board the vessel had prepared a non-violent measure and were ready to physically block the entrance to the steering room using their bodies; although in the end, the tide of events seemed to have restrained such plans from transforming into actions.
An interesting fact to be noted is that one day of international solidarity has attracted so much international sympathy for the Palestinian cause. Despite the casualties, the event showcased how international solidarity can muster much better support than terrorism and that it can be employed in the future as a strategic option.
In the case of Palestine, international solidarity has continuously shifted in terms of its quantity as well as form. In the mid 20th century, at the birth of Israel, international solidarity for Palestine came in the form of state-sponsored military support where Palestine’s immediate neighbours combined their military might and waged war against Israel. This form of state-driven international solidarity proved itself to be counterproductive, installing further enmity and hostilities in the region for decades to come.
In the 1980s, the oil boom resulted in the economic surge of Palestine’s oil-producing neighbours. The benefit, however, was not experienced by ordinary Palestinians. Great amounts of funds were channelled to support dissident groups, promoting and endorsing a confrontational position against Israel, through the spread of violent ideologies and beliefs. The decade had seen the rise of international “solidarity,” utilising terrorist attacks to attract attention towards Palestine’s plight as well as to de-legitimise Israel’s actions. This support, however, in the end proved to backfire yet again.
The use of disproportionate and indiscriminate violence provided grounds for Israel’s legitimacy in excessive military retaliation and had in fact forced several parties to reconsider their support for Palestine. Recent developments indicated that solidarity towards Palestine is shifting away from violent instruments towards more civilised and widespread grass-roots support from civil society organisations as well as communities.
Transnational terrorism is known to be able to attract attention as well as publicity for a cause. However, international assistance and civil society movements had proven themselves able to attract attention while mustering solidarity, sympathy and support for the Palestinian cause, three by-products that terrorism could never have offered.
In conclusion, it is observable that practices of humanitarian assistance are highly intertwined with the notion of sovereignty. The “border” between national and international security, as well as transnational humanitarian assistance is becoming even more elusive. Regardless of Hamas’ and Israel’s preference, the notion of national sovereignty is currently undergoing continuous compromise with international solidarity.
International solidarity has altered Hamas’ sovereignty. Through international solidarity, schools, hospitals, markets and housing areas will continue to be built, but Hamas will have a limited say in determining where, when and what is to be built. Being dependent on foreign humanitarian aid, Hamas exercises less authority than what conventional sovereignty would like to suggest, especially regarding its development options.
The constant military presence and pressure from Israel also restricts Hamas’ choice of actions in enforcing its sovereignty in order to provide security for the people of Gaza. On the other side, Israel’s military might does not justify its actions; “might” does not necessarily translate into “right.” Israel’s intentions, as well as actions, to practice absolute sovereignty in ensuring its security are fiercely contested, not only by Hamas, but also by the international community as well as civil societies throughout the world.
Israel stated that the freedom fleet humanitarian campaign was itself a “provocation intended to de-legitimise Israel.” Why should a country, with a military might surpassing the combined might of its immediate neighbours be concerned about legitimacy?
It is an unavoidable fact that legitimacy is currently an integral part of contemporary sovereignty. In the case of the “freedom” vessels, it seemed that international solidarity had taken the moral high ground compared to its counterpart, national sovereignty. The number of civilian casualties in the incident has secured more attention, sympathy, solidarity and support for the people of Gaza than could ever be possible if such casualties were suffered in a war or while carrying out a terrorist attack.
Pierre Marthinus is a lecturer and researcher with the Department of International Relations at the University of Indonesia.