Israel is facing worldwide condemnation for its high seas commando assault on a ship carrying humanitarian aid. The raid, that occurred in international waters about 70 miles off Israel’s coast, resulted in the deaths of at least nine activists who were part of a group of Europeans trying to bring 10,000 tons of relief materials to Gaza to assist Palestinians on the strip. Israel has justified the raid as a defense of its blockade of the Gaza Strip but there is little justification for the violence unleashed on aid workers by its military early Monday.
In defense of the attack, the Israeli government released video footage of commandos under attack by stick wielding workers on the ships when the military stormed the flotilla. What the video conveniently does not show are armed soldiers in assault gear descending on ships carrying aid workers. Given the circumstances, it is no surprise, and certainly not beyond reason, that aid workers would defend themselves in such a situation. While Israel claims it seeks to deter the influence of Hamas, it would gain far greater favor if it allowed or even provided humanitarian assistance to Palestinians in Gaza. Rather than use a heavy hand by turning back ships on the high seas, Israel could just as easily provide secure passage of humanitarian aid.
The raid points to the desperate need for a two-state solution to the Middle East conflict, a solution which results in the creation of a Palestinian state. For too long Palestinians have lived as nomads, and disproportionately suffered hardships in the region. While both sides of this conflict have erred in the past, Israel has had the upper hand since the nation’s founding. Israel has also used its relationship with the United States government, and the empathy of American Jews, to shield itself from criticism in the international community. The response to this latest incident suggests that Israel has used up much of its political capital and is now facing a credibility deficit.
Israel has always been the “third rail” so to speak for African Americans, given the very complex relationship with the Jewish community that is shaped by history and religion. Even many Blacks in the United States are unaware that an African American, Dr. Ralph Bunche, brokered the agreement that gave rise to the modern state of Israel. History and religion aside for the moment, Blacks need to be engaged in the politics of the Middle East due to the extent of U.S. aid to Israel, the comparatively low level of aid given nations in sub-Saharan Africa, and the large Islamic community in the region. The latter is particularly important given the presence of Islam in Africa and the growing ranks of Muslims among African Americans. From a purely humanitarian perspective, many Blacks empathize with the plight of the Palestinians because it echoes our global experience. The recent series in The Guardian newspaper in London on the connections between the Israeli government and the apartheid regime in South Africa only served to reinforce the sentiments of many Blacks that Israel has not been an honest broker.
With so much on his plate, President Obama is likely dreading the manner in which this latest debacle in the Middle East has descended upon his administration. He cannot avoid it. Though the United Nations has expressed outrage over the Israeli assault on the humanitarian aid ship at sea, our government has taken a more cautious route as it walks a diplomatic tightrope. The administration has been careful not to offend Israel, and to not appear to the Palestinians as apologists for Israel, while keeping a close eye on Iran’s flirtation with nuclear weapons. One of the real dilemmas for the United States is the fact that many in the Arab world view our relationship with Israel with suspicion and that is a real problem. That perception will change only when there is a sense that the United States is not taking sides, and is acting in the best interest of a permanent and equitable solution for peace in the Middle East.
All of this brings to mind the fact that Andrew Young, when he served as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, was prophetic in suggesting that there could be no resolution to the conflict in the Middle East unless the United States engaged the Palestinians. For his honesty and sense of justice, Young was condemned and resigned his position under pressure. Perhaps now, there will be a new consensus that diplomacy in the Middle East is only legitimate when it involves the consideration of the rights of the Palestinian people, as well as the state of Israel.
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