When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, almost everyone has an opinion. The same is true for every detail—every smaller event and action—encompassed by that conflict. And often, both sides of the conflict bring logical and compelling arguments to the table. Take the recent aid flotilla fiasco and the blockade it was trying to break: Supporters of Israel’s actions say that attacks—and killings—of activists were merely self-defense against those same, aggressive activists. Critics claim that the activists acted aggressively because Israel’s military attacked the boat in international waters—and perhaps because Israel’s military might have used force before its members even boarded the ship.
When it comes to the blockade itself, the arguments are even more fleshed out and well defended. Israel says the initial reason for the blockade was—and remains—to stymie the rocket fire from the militant group Hamas. The blockade—enforced by both Israel and Egypt—is meant to keep Hamas from procuring the weapons it needs to continue its attacks on Israeli towns and cities. The hope has always been to increase Israel’s security by removing Hamas from power. Yet, critics propose that Israel’s blockade runs far deeper than simple security. Those that are punished most for Hamas’s actions seem not to be the militants but everyday civilians, who must rely on aid to survive, aid that is often inconsistent and unreasonable. Among the items that have been banned from the Gaza strip are soda, chocolate, spices, fresh meat, live farm animals (like chicken and goats), newspapers, wood and cement. The result? A humanitarian crisis in Gaza, where upwards of 80% of civilians rely on food from the UN, where nearly half the population is unemployed, and where 95% of children under fifteen suffer from depression and stress.
Whatever side you may take on the issue, there is one thing upon which many seem able to agree: the events of May 31 and the blockade concerned are nothing less than a tragedy. It is a tragedy that activists aboard the Mavi Marmara, the biggest of the aid ships, felt the need to meet the Israeli soldiers with violence. It is a tragedy that the Israeli military decided to overtake the flotilla in international waters, a clear violation of the law of the sea. It is a tragedy that after the dust had settled, dozens of activists and soldiers were wounded, and nine Turkish nationals were left dead. It is a tragedy that an aid flotilla, like many before it, was met with hostility, and it is a tragedy that half a century after the establishment of the Israeli state, its government still feels the need to go to violent extremes to protect and assert its right to exist.
But the greatest tragedy of all is that a blatant humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip has been reduced to a mere political statement. For Israel, the blockade isn’t just about defending its citizens from militants; it’s also about collectively punishing and humiliating 1.5 million Palestinians for the conflict that isn’t theirs to bear. And for the activists and aid workers from the Free Gaza Movement and İnsani Yardım Vakfı, the aid flotilla wasn’t just about providing much need supplies to everyday Gazans, supplies that could have been peacefully approved or denied by Israeli officials at the port of Ashdod. It was about breaking the blockade, about proving that Israel does not have the right or the power to enforce what many in the international community deem an unjust and illegal ban on goods. During World War II, Joseph Stalin infamously said, “A single death is a tragedy. A million is a statistic.” It is a grim quote, perhaps too morbid even for this present-day conflict. But the concept behind the quote is familiar in the here-and-now: as long as Israel enforces its unjust and failed blockade, and as long as activists like those aboard the Mavi Marmara embark on such provocations, the Gazans needing aid will remain simply numbers on paper, lives lost but lives without identity, without humanity. This is the greatest tragedy of all.
However, when events like the attack on the flotilla break out—isolated events that must be explained, that will be defended and decried—both parties of a conflict have a chance to embrace the event as a turning point. For Israel, there are many actions it must take to regain the faith of the international community.
First, it must seek a genuine and speedy end to the blockade of the Gaza Strip. Its initial purpose—to halt Hamas rocket fire—has clearly failed, as Hamas has still been able to procure the weapons it needs to carry out such attacks, mostly by way of smuggler’s tunnels. What’s more, the Gaza Strip has devolved into one of the most poverty-ridden areas of the world. Even if adequate aid were given in the form of food, clothing, and medicine, civilians would still lack the resources necessary to rebuild Gaza’s economy. Without construction materials, which Israel has banned on the claim that they will be used by Hamas to fashion weaponry, the people of Gaza are unable to rebuild the roads, schools, and homes that were destroyed by the 2008-2009 Israeli offensive. Furthermore, if the blockade is continued, Israel risks marginalizing Gaza’s moderate population. If Gazan civilians feel they are being held hostage by a hostile state, they will turn to Hamas for aid and empowerment. Instead of delegitimizing Hamas, Israel is only serving to strengthen its cause among everyday Palestinians.
Second, Israel must accept an international, UN inquiry into the May 31 attacks. Many critics of Israel claim it is allowed to get away with offenses to international law that few other countries would be able to execute without severe condemnation and punishment. No matter what Israel’s intent when it confronted the aid flotilla, it still broke the law by executing that confrontation in international waters. In order to clear its name and gain respect and trust from outside states and authorities, it is essential that Israel play by the same rules as everyone else. Accepting an international probe, instead of an internal investigation carried out by the state, would be a strong step in this direction.
Not all the weight falls on Israel. Hamas must vow to stop its terrorist tactics against Israel. It must halt its rocket fire and acknowledge Israel’s right to exist. As long as it pursues the destruction of the state, it will be considered a threat not just to that state, but also to the international community. Furthermore, as the elected rulers of the Gaza Strip, Hamas also has its role to play in aiding its citizens. Once it gets the resources, Hamas must commit itself not to building weapons but to building an economy. Furthermore, it must help distribute aid to its citizens fairly; reports of militants seizing aid trucks and then selling the aid at high prices are just as tragic as reports of the continued Israeli blockade.
Finally, both parties must acknowledge that sooner or later, the solution to their conflict will lie in diplomacy. Both the Israeli government and Hamas have pinned their hopes for self-determination and peace on violence and aggression. Only when both parties resolve to end this conflict through words and treaties, not bombs and guns, will both the Israelis and Palestinian be able to coexist alongside each other, whether within one state or two.
Until these steps are taken, 1.5 million Gazans will continue to suffer for wrongs they have not committed while living in one of the most unforgiving environments on the planet.
Audrey Williams, UNAiowa blogger