My interview with Alex Kane

by J.A. Myerson

Alex Kane, who is currently in Jordan, is a blogger and a freelance journalist based in New York City, writing mostly on Israel/Palestine, Islamophobia and the Middle East.  He writes for the Indypendent, a free New York City-based newspaper, and is a frequent contributor to the blog Mondoweiss.  His work has also appeared in Electronic IntifadaCommon DreamsPalestine ChronicleRed Pepper (UK),  Extra!AlterNet, Salon, and the Gotham Gazette.

J.A. Myerson: The New York Times is reporting that it has obtained a copy of a United Nations review, which comes out tomorrow, regarding Israel’s raid on the Mavi Marmara, whenIsrael killed nine people, including an American. The primary findings of the review appear to be a) that Israel used excessive force when it boarded the flotilla but that some force was apparently justified, given the hostility that Israeli commandos encountered upon boarding, and b) That Israel’s blockade of Gaza, which the flotilla was trying to break, is justified and appropriate. Among opponents of the blockade of Gaza, of which you and I are two, it’s an accepted truism that one reason to oppose the blockade is its illegality. What is the argument that the blockade is illegal, if that is indeed what you believe, and what is your response to the UN review contesting that description?

Alex Kane: The full naval-land-air blockade that the Gaza Strip is under was instituted first following the 2006 elections in the Palestinian territories when Hamas won what were widely acknowledged to be democratic elections. One justification for the blockade that Israel cites is that Hamas is holding Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier, in captivity. Israel also contends that the blockade exists for security reasons.

But what’s clear under international law, under the Geneva Conventions, is that collective punishment is illegal, and the blockade of Gaza is illegal because it constitutes collective punishment. Israel is punishing every single person in the Gaza strip, roughly half of whom are under the age of 18, for having voted in democratic elections and for the political positions that Hamas espouses.

The blockade is also, as Yousef Munayyer of the Palestine Center pointed out last June, in violation of Part V Section II (102) of the San Remo Manual on International Law, which prohibits blockades a) that have the sole purpose of starving the civilian population or denying it other objects essential to its survival; or b) under which the damage to the civilian population is, or may be expected to be, excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated from the blockade.

Numerous UN reports and bodies have deemed the blockade illegal as collective punishment. The International Committee of the Red Cross has said so, Richard Goldstone in the Goldstone Report said so, the independent Human Rights Council report on the raid on the Mavi Marmara said so, and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, has said so. So we can play a numbers game, in that there are far more instances of respected international bodies as well as respected human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International that have deemed the blockade illegal, and now we have this one panel saying that it is legal.

The other thing is that you have to look at the makeup of the panel tasked with this investigation of the Israeli raid on the Mavi Marmara and the five other ships that were part of the first Freedom Flotilla. The big red flag that people should focus on is the fact that Álvaro Uribe of Colombia was one of the two supposedly independent observers on this committee. Uribe cannot plausibly be thought of as impartial on issues of human rights. He has himself been implicated in numerous human rights abuses as president of Colombia and he is also an outspoken supporter of the state of Israel. So that also calls into question the impartiality of this panel, which was the one panel of inquiry that the UN set up that Israel agreed to cooperate with.

JAM: If this panel is reputed by its commissioning body to have been impartial and the makeup of the body indicts is as being impartial, that suggests that it was commissioned in order not to be impartial, in other words that it was commissioned in order to deliver these results. How do you account for that?

AK: Yes. That’s an accurate assessment.

You have to go back to right after the flotilla incident in 2010. After this happened, when nine people ended up dead and dozens injured, Israel came under a huge amount of pressure in a variety of ways, both from states and from global civil society in the form of the BDS Movement. My reading is that, in order to deflect this pressure, and after some prodding by the Obama Administration, Israel finally agreed to cooperate with this panel. This is a first for Israel. Israel does not often cooperate with the UN, so you have to wonder what was going on behind closed doors and what was said to Israel to make it suddenly cooperate with the UN, especially about an issue as politically charged as its raid on the flotilla.

Another important thing to note is that the mandate of the panel coming out with this report did not give the panel much power. It did not call witnesses, it did not collect documents. It was called a fact finding mission. And it seems like the panel has collected the Israeli side and the Turkish side and kind of plopped it in this report. That’s what I gather the report was. The point of it was not to be an independent investigation that was designed to get to the bottom of who was at fault, who was wrong, what should happen.

JAM: What are the grounds on which a report like this one could determine that the siege of Gaza does not constitute collective punishment and that it therefore is to be thought of as legal?

AK: Based on the Times article, the justification is that there is a legitimate security concern on the part of Israel that militants in Gaza could smuggle weapons from the sea and use those weapons to harm Israel. But it’s clear that Hamas has weapons, and it’s clear that other groups in Gaza have weapons and that they do use them on Israel. Therefore the blockade has not been effective in stopping weaponry from entering Gaza. Remember, the security advantage gained by a blockade needs to be greater than the suffering inflicted in order to retain legality, and the fact is that the blockade is having devastating effects on the population of Gaza. Dov Wiesglass, an aid to former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, said that the intention of the blockade was “to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger.” One often overlooked effect that the naval blockade has is cutting off Gaza’s access to the sea, which was a lucrative source of employment and food for Gaza’s fisherman. And it’s not just the naval blockade, but the full blockade regime.

JAM: In your assessment, to what extent does the release of this report change the game either for Israeli-Turkish relations or for global public opinion on the matter or for the internal Israeli negotiations about its commitment to this blockade and other tactics like it?

AK: It’s definitely a win for Israel. That’s clear. Whether that win matters, I’m not sure. I don’t think it does. One UN report says that the blockade is legal. Comparing it to the loads of material that has determined it to be illegal shows why the win is not going to add up to a whole lot.

Israel will trumpet the report, of course, but I don’t think that it’s going to have an impact on what people think, especially people who have been paying attention to the conflict over the past couple of years. Although it’s not the case in the US, Israel’s image around the world has plummeted and for good reason, because of its occupation, because of what can only be described as an apartheid system, and especially because of the assault on Gaza in 2008-2009 and what people saw Israel do to the Mavi Marmara.

Turkey – and Israel, to a certain extent – really wanted to patch up relations. Israel and Turkey have long been allies; there are economic links between the two, military links between the two, &c. So the countries had an interest in trying to patch things up, which is why it took so long for the report to be published.

The bottom line for Turkey though was that Israel had to apologize and pay compensation to the families of the Turks and the American who were killed by Israel. For a little while it seemed like Benjamin Netanyahu was strongly considering apologizing. Now, it seems that his far-right coalition prevented him from doing that, specifically his foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman. Reports say he made a big show of not apologizing to Turkey. And so Israeli-Turkish relations are going to deteriorate further.

Since the report is being published tomorrow, Turkey has said that it is going to “Plan B.” It’s a little unclear what that means, but there are a couple of things that have been floating around in the Turkish and Israeli press. Recep Tayyib Erdogan, the Turkish Prime Minister, has said he’s going to visit Gaza, which Israel is not going to like. There might be further diplomatic ramifications for Israel, in terms of a downgrading of its diplomatic status within Ankara. I think they still have ambassador-to-ambassador relations, but that may change. Further contracts that Turkish businesses have with Israel might be affected. It’s unclear what this report’s specific implications will be for Israeli-Turkish relations, but I think we’re going to see in the coming days.

As for Israeli society, it’s tough to say. There is certainly not a strong majority or consensus against the blockade, and so this will further damage those who have been calling for an end to the blockade. I don’t think it’s going to matter as much for Israeli internal society, though as it will for Israel’s diplomatic relations with Turkey.

JAM: Among the contents of the report, do you gather that there are any factors mitigating Israel’s victory?

AK: Based on the Times article, the report found that the people who were killed on the flotilla didn’t pose a threat to Israel and that some of them were killed at point-blank range. This is something that the Human Rights Council report had said and was one of the most shocking findings. Israel essentially executed some of the people on the Mavi Marmara at point blank range. It seems that this report is vindicating that. If so I think that it will add to Turkey’s threats of legal actions against Israel. Turkey has been looking into filing lawsuits against Israel or the Israeli naval commandos that conducted the attack, and I think that those steps will go further once the report is published. The description of what actually happened aboard the Mavi Marmara will only bolster Turkey’s case against Israel.