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Obama Must Do More to Hold Israel Accountable for Gaza Blockade

June 3rd, 2010

The following analysis provided by US Campaign National Advocacy Director Josh Ruebner:

On a March 2010 visit to Israel/Palestine, during which Israel announced plans for the construction of 1,600 additional housing units in its illegal colonies in occupied Palestinian East Jerusalem, an irate Vice President Joe Biden pledged that the Obama Administration would hold Israel “accountable for any statements or actions that inflame tensions or prejudice the outcome of talks.”

Israel’s May 31 act of aggression on international waters against the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, an operation which killed nine humanitarian activists, injured dozens, and resulted in the abduction, detainment, and deportation of hundreds, has tested the Obama Administration’s commitment to its pledge of accountability.

Israel’s combined naval and air assault against the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, an international convoy of six ships laden with 10,000 tons of desperately needed humanitarian aid for the 1.5 million blockaded Palestinians of the occupied Gaza Strip, exposed the piratical nature of Israel’s attempt to stifle international activism to break its illegal blockade of Gaza, as well as its flouting of the UN Convention on the Laws of the Sea specifically and international law generally.

In its response to Israel’s attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla to date, the Obama Administration has combined a reticence to directly condemn Israel’s actions with recognition that Israel cannot continue the current intensity of its blockade of the Gaza Strip in the long-run. The subsequent ledger tallies up the positive and negative aspects of the Obama Administration’s response so far.

On the Positive Side

* The United States indirectly condemned the attack via the United Nations.Security Council statement condemning Israel’s attack, and insisting upon a “prompt, impartial, credible and transparent investigation conforming to international standards.” White House spokesperson Robert Gibbs reiterated U.S. support for this statement during a June 1 press briefing.

* The Obama Administration has conceded that Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip cannot proceed as currently structured. The worldwide condemnation of Israel’s attack on the flotilla and its blockade of the Gaza Strip have finally broken through the Obama Administration’s heretofore piecemeal advocacy efforts to press Israel to allow in certain additional items through the blockade. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton dubbed the situation in Gaza “unsustainable and unacceptable” in a June 1 press conference. After the attack on the flotilla, the State Department also for the first time insisted that Israel allow reconstruction materials into the Gaza Strip.

* The State Department has poked holes in Israel’s propaganda. Israel has made risible claims that the organizers of the Turkish contingent of the flotilla were affiliated with international terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda. The main Turkish organization involved in the flotilla, IHH (Humanitarian Relief Foundation), is not listed as a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the United States, as confirmed by Assistant Secretary of State Philip Crowley, who pointedly refused to validate Israeli claims, during his June 2 daily press briefing.

* The United States has distanced itself from Israel’s attack. In response to a question from the Washington Post, the State Department confirmed that it had multiple communications with Israel prior to its attack, during which “We emphasized caution and restraint given the anticipated presence of civilians, including American citizens.” The diplomatic niceties of this statement notwithstanding, its import is to publicly signal that the United States considers Israel’s attack disproportionate and unacceptable.

On the Negative Side

* The Obama Administration has refused to directly condemn Israel’s attack.President Obama spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hours after the attack, and only went as far as expressing “the importance of learning all the facts and circumstances around this morning's tragic events as soon as possible.”

Explaining why the United States voted against a June 2 UN Human Rights Council resolution condemning the assault, Assistant Secretary of State Crowley stated “we considered this to be a rush to judgment. I would call attention in the resolution that it actually condemned the attack by Israeli forces before Israel or anyone else has had the opportunity to fairly evaluate the facts. So that is the reason why we voted no.”

By this same reasoning, wouldn’t the Obama Administration be premature in its condemnation of British Petroleum (BP) for the ongoing Gulf of Mexico oil spill catastrophe?

* The United States has fought hard against internationalizing the investigation. The Obama Administration is displaying an unbelievably naïve faith that Israel can investigate and punish itself for its violations of human rights and international law. In a June 1 press conference, Deputy U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations Alejandro Wolff stated that the United States has “every confidence that Israel can conduct a credible and impartial and transparent, prompt investigation internally.” This same reasoning was deployed a day later by the State Department to rationalize the United States voting against the UN Human Rights Council setting up an independent fact-finding mission.

Just as BP can’t be trusted to investigate and punish itself for the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, and just as it is completely apropos for an outside body—the Department of Justice—to lodge criminal charges against it, neither can Israel be trusted to investigate and punish itself for its own criminal acts.

* The Obama Administration is still not opposed to Israel’s blockade of Gaza per se. Although the State Department has issued positive statements pressuring Israel to ease its blockade of Gaza, it has not denounced the blockade itself. As is widely recognized, Israel’s blockade of the 1.5 million Palestinian civilians who live under Israeli military occupation in the Gaza Strip is an illegal form of collective punishment, which is considered a war crime under Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

U.S. attempts at making Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip more palatable only renders the United States a colluding partner in Israel’s war crime, an act which in and of itself is a violation of the United States’ responsibility to enforce the terms of the Geneva Conventions.

At times, the Obama Administration has even displayed a shocking callousness regarding the seriousness of Israel’s attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla and ignorance about the severity of its blockade of Gaza. Speaking on the June 2 edition of the Charlie Rose Show, Vice President Biden wondered aloud, “So what's the big deal here?” before going on to insinuate that humanitarian activists were really arms smugglers and that Israel would surely let in reconstruction materials into Gaza of its own free will.

This mixed bag reveals an Obama Administration deeply conflicted about how to respond properly to Israel’s attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla and its ongoing blockade of the Gaza Strip. On the one hand, it is clearly not pleased with Israel for the viciousness of the assault and understands that a full-scale blockade is no longer tenable. On the other hand, it has reverted to the default U.S. position of shielding Israel from accountability in international institutions and refraining from critiquing Israel’s odious underlying policies.

To live up to its promise to hold Israel accountable, the Obama Administration must do much more in response to the attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla and its ongoing blockade of the Gaza Strip. The following are four policy recommendations that, if implemented, would bring United States policy into alignment with the rest of the international community and principles of human rights and international law:

1) Directly condemn Israel's attack against the Gaza Freedom Flotilla and support an international investigation of it.

2) Initiate a domestic investigation into Israel’s violation the Arms Export Control Act (AECA), and immediately end all military aid to Israel as a consequence of it violating this law.

The AECA stipulates that U.S. weapons can be used only for “internal security” or “legitimate self-defense.” Since Israel engaged in act of aggression in international waters, it is self-evident that Israel violated this law.

As additional details of the attack emerge, it is also becoming clear that Israel misused U.S. weapons to injure and kill U.S. citizens. Israel killed Furkan Dogan, a 19 year-old U.S. student, with four bullets to the head and one to the chest, and beat at least two U.S. citizens, Huwaida Arraf of Washington, D.C., and Dr. Paul Larudee of El Cerrito, California, the latter of whom required hospitalization. Another U.S. citizen, Emily Henochowicz, was shot in the face with a tear gas canister by the Israeli military while protesting the flotilla massacre near the Qalandia Checkpoint in the West Bank. She is recovering in Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem and has lost her eye as well as requiring reconstructive surgery.

The United States has provided the Israeli navy and air force with weapons through Foreign Military Financing (FMF) budget allocations that were, or may have been, used in this attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla. According to the Jerusalem Post, the Israel Air Force used three Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters to transport its commandos to the ships. The Israel Air Force is reported to have 49 of these combat helicopters.

In addition, the United States has transferred additional weapons to the Israeli Navy that may have been used in violation of the AECA during its attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla. In July 2008, the Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DCSA) notified Congress of a possible Foreign Military Sale (FMS) to Israel of four littoral combat ships (LCS-I variant), associated equipment, and services valued at up to $1.9 billion. The Israeli Navy is also reported to have three Sa’ar 5-class corvettes built in the United States.

In addition, press reports indicate that Israel may have used U.S. guns, ammunition, night vision goggles, and crowd dispersal weapons in its attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla.

Israel’s misuse of U.S. weapons in its attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla is only the latest in a long string of human rights abuses committed by Israel with U.S. taxpayer-funded arms. During the Bush Administration, Israel killed more than 3,000 innocent Palestinian civilians, according to the Israeli human rights organization B’tselem, often with U.S. weapons.

This hardly seems like a solid moral return on a $30 billion taxpayer investment in Israeli occupation and apartheid. To learn more about how much money your community gives to Israel in military aid, what that money could be used for instead to fulfill unmet needs in your community, and how you can take action to end military aid to Israel, click here.

3) Pressure Israel to end its illegal blockade of the occupied Palestinian Gaza Strip.

4) End U.S. support for Israel's illegal occupation of the Palestinian West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza Strip.

Next week marks 43 years since Israel occupied these Palestinian territories. Israel’s barbaric assault on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla has refocused the world’s attention on the urgency of ending Israel’s illegal blockade of Gaza and its decades-long occupation of Palestinian territories. Moral outrage at Israel’s actions—and U.S. support for them—can be turned into constructive action by clicking here.