This op-ed was published in USA Today on 4 June 2010.

Israel must believe that it can get away with murder.

That conclusion is hard to escape following the Israeli military's forceful boarding of a civilian fleet bearing 10,000 tons of humanitarian supplies to Gaza's besiegedPalestinian population. Israeli commandoes killed at least nine civilian activists, including a U.S. citizen, sailing through international waters on their way to the Gaza Strip. More were wounded, some of them seriously, and several Israeli soldiers have been injured as well.

Though the facts surrounding the assault remain murky, Israeli forces may have fired stun grenades and tear gas on the Turkish-flagged Mavi Marmara before lowering soldiers to the ship's deck. This much is clear: Passengers resisted the assault using whatever improvised weapons came to hand, including deck chairs. Well-armed Israeli soldiers then turned live fire on the passengers. Israel claims to have found shell casings from non-Israeli weapons in a search of the ship, indicating that at least some passengers were armed. But the ships and their passengers had been carefully searched prior to disembarkation, and no arms had been found.

A justified act?

Israel had no legal justification for attacking a peaceful flotilla carrying crayons, cement, medicines and other non-military goods in international waters. Moreover, ship passengers had the right to defend themselves against the illegal raid, whether or not Israeli commandos opened fire immediately, as the passengers allege. As a matter of law, lowering 100 armed soldiers onto a ship at night is already an act of aggression, and Israeli soldiers who initiated the force cannot thereafter claim self-defense. Hence Israel bears legal responsibility for the killings perpetrated by its soldiers.

 

The "Freedom Flotilla" was organized by the Free Gaza Movement and the Turkish charity Insani Yardim Vakfi to challenge Israel's siege of the Gaza Strip. The siege, imposed initially by Israel after a Hamas victory in Palestinian elections in January 2006, has gradually intensified, and is blamed by many international observers for causing a humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip.

Israel's explicit objective in the siege is to exert pressure on Gaza's civilians, and thus to undermine the authority of Hamas, which has refused to recognize the state of Israel. Hamas is ideologically committed to creating an Islamic state in Palestine, although in recent years its leaders have signaled willingness to accept a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Even so, Israel's desire to weaken Hamas is a political, not military, objective. Thus, Israel's actions are not justified under international law. According to the just-released annual report of Amnesty International: "Mass unemployment, extreme poverty, food insecurity and food price rises caused by shortages left four out of five Gazans dependent on humanitarian aid. The scope of the blockade and statements made by Israeli officials about its purpose showed that it was being imposed as a form of collective punishment of Gazans, a flagrant violation of international law." Clearly, actions to enforce an illegal siege cannot themselves be lawful.

Will the world act?

The question, as always in the aftermath of another act of unjustified Israeli violence is: How will the international community respond? And more particularly, how will the U.S. government respond? President Obama's tepid expression of regret at the loss of lives in the raid reiterates a message that Israel has consistently heard in the past: that its violations of international law create a momentary firestorm of condemnation, but nothing more.

Israel's politicians seem incapable of grasping the enormity of the crisis into which they are leading their country. Faced with mounting criticism — for the barbaric pounding of Lebanon in 2006, and for the devastation of the Gaza Strip in 2008-09 — they only hurl accusations of anti-Semitism against those who question its tactics. Israel may have now irreparably alienated Turkey, its longtime and only Muslim ally. Thus 62 years after its founding, Israel has seemingly isolated itself from the entire Middle East. American politicians from both parties have only enabled this sorry trend.

For its own good, and for the sake of its victims, Israel's impunity must end. The perpetrators of this latest illegal act should face criminal prosecution. The international community must also pressure Israel to halt its illegal and unconscionable punishment of the civilian population of Gaza.

We must further recognize that a state committed to privileging Jews, implanted, as Israel was, in a country with a majority Palestinian population, can only be sustained by violence. What happened off the coast of Gaza is only the latest incident in Israel's doomed effort to impose itself by force on an entire region that rejects its claims to ethnic supremacy. From a nation that once permitted slavery, but now has an African-American president, the ethic of equal rights would be the greatest gift the United States could offer our Israeli and Palestinian friends