My inbox was full yesterday, and the Israeli press, which I follow obsessively, was carrying hour-by-hour updates. The “Freedom Flotilla,” seeking to bring humanitarian supplies and increased international attention to Israel’s blockade of Gaza, was expected to arrive in Gaza by morning. An encounter with the Israeli Navy was expected. It was like watching a horror movie in slow motion. Even for an inveterate optimist like me, it was difficult to imagine a positive result.
Still, this morning’s news was shocking and terribly sad. As usual, the two sides describe the events of the day differently. We know that Israeli naval forces boarded the Turkish boat leading the flotilla and that violence ensued. Ha’aretz, Israel’s prestigious, left-of-center newspaper (often compared to the New York Times), quotes Israeli commandos as saying that the international activists had attacked them with clubs and knives, throwing Israelis from the upper deck to the lower deck, and attacking with Israeli weapons. This after Ha’aretz commentators, critical of Israel’s siege of Gaza, had harshly denounced their own government’s stated intent to block the aid convoy. Al Jazeera reported that Israeli naval personnel, lowered from a helicopter overhead, and Israeli naval ships surrounding the aid boat, opened fire before being fired upon.
We may never know exactly what happened on that ship – who attacked first, whose words or gestures ignited the lethal flame. I imagine that the Israeli naval commandos may have thought of themselves as defending their own national security, fearing that cement brought by the convoy would be used to reinforce terrorist infrastructure. And I imagine that the Turkish activists, already furious over Israel’s three-year blockade and the recent war in Gaza, felt themselves under attack when uniformed naval forces boarded their ship. We may never know who physically struck the first blow.
But this is exactly how war works. Each side feels threatened by the other; a combination of events, hostile language, and deeply-held fear magnifies the image of the other as dangerous, even evil. It takes very little to ignite the flames anew.
Today’s events are tragic on many levels. Most obviously, reports indicate that at least nine people were killed, and dozens more wounded. All people of conscience must grieve on this Memorial Day for the loss of life and hope. Today seems a tragic day as well for the people of Gaza, where grass-roots activists waited to distribute food, toys, and sports supplies, hopeful for the chance to rebuild homes and social institutions destroyed in the war two years ago. The disappointment must be great, and the anger enormous.
For those of us who love Israel, the international furor over today’s events represents one more round of attacks on our beloved homeland, imprisoned by fear, despair, and hate-mongering leaders. There are already reports of demonstrations around Israel today, to grieve for the dead, pray for the wounded and traumatized, and protest the government’s misguided actions. I wish I were in Israel right now to stand with Jewish peace and justice activists, asserting that such violence is a betrayal of Jewish values.
I pray that somehow, against all odds, today’s terrible events may somehow bring about an awakening on three levels: (1)that the international uproar may jolt the Israeli government out of its wrong-headed belief that force can guarantee our safety; (2)that the Obama administration will reinvigorate its efforts to bring the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to an end before more innocents die; and (3)that somehow, this tragedy may bring the people of Gaza closer to the freedom, dignity, and honorable government that they deserve.