Black Propaganda and Violent Rhetoric: Israel is Shooting Itself in the Foot over the Gaza Flotilla

Some first rate bloggers and journalists are covering the Gaza flotilla and revealing the lengths to which the Israeli authorities are prepared to go to stop the entire enterprise in its tracks. Not being party to any additional information about what’s going on, I’ve just been following the reports of others with increasing disbelief and astonishment rather than writing about the situation myself. But the black propaganda being churned out by the Israelis has reached such a level that it’s impossible to remain merely an observer. The urge to bring it all to further public attention, in however small a way through my still very young personal blog, is too strong.

For a country that’s constantly preaching to the rest of the world about the strength of its adherence to democratic values, Israel’s attempts to frighten off journalists sailing on the boats so that they can cover events first-hand have been quite extraordinary. The most blatant was the issuing of a threat by Oren Helman, Director of the Government Press Office, in a 26 June letter printed on headed notepaper ‘From the office of the prime minister’:

As Director of the Government Press Office, I would like to make it clear to you and to the media you represent, that participation in the flotilla is an intentional violation of Israeli law and is liable to lead to participants being denied entry into the State of Israel for ten years, the impoundment of their equipment and to additional sanctions.

I implore you to avoid taking part in this provocative and dangerous event, the purpose of which is to undermine Israel’s right to defend itself and to knowingly violate Israeli law.

So much for freedom of the press – a freedom that is in Israel’s own interests since if there are ‘extremists’ aboard intent on pre-meditated acts of violence, as the Israeli authorities initially alleged, the journalists would be there to bear witness and bring such ‘facts’ to public attention. The outcry against this arbitrary and probably illegal measure was so strong that within a couple of days the injunction was withdrawn.

Meanwhile,  a video appeared on YouTube of an American gay rights activist who claimed that organizers of the flotilla had rejected his offer to mobilize a network of gay activists in support of their cause. This was clearly an attempt to smear the organizers as homophobic and as blind to the evils of the Hamas regime. But within days the video was exposed as a hoax by the Electronic Intifada, a pro-Palestinian Web site. The man in the video was identified as Omer Gershon, a Tel Aviv actor involved in marketing. As Robert Mackey explained on The Lede, the New York Times blog, on 28 June, ‘bloggers were quick to point out that people in three different Israeli government offices promoted it on Twitter soon after it was posted online.’ The Israeli press office then deleted its Twitter message and posted a new one, apologizing for having promoted ‘an apparent hoax’. It then emerged that the actor is linked with a producer, Elag Magdasi, who appears to be opposed to the flotilla campaign. His YouTube channel features a link to videos made by ‘a nonprofit Israel advocacy organization’ called Stand With Us. Mackey writes:

The Stand With Us YouTube channel currently features a new video that argues that Israel’s military ‘lawfully enforces a naval blockade on the Gaza Strip,’ which is necessary ‘to protect Israeli civilians from attacks by the terrorist organization Hamas.’

But was the Israeli government involved in the production and distribution of the video? When the Ha’aretz journalist Barak Ravid learnt of the story, the paper sent a series of questions to the prime minister’s office seeking answers. Ravid writes:

The premier’s office in response did not deny that that the government was involved in the video’s production, and admitted that government bodies had distributed the link.

The Israeli journalists Joseph Dana and Maya Guarnieri, who are in Athens and preparing to board the American boat heading for Gaza, have been chronicling the pressures that the Israeli authorities and groups doing their work for them have been bringing to bear on the Greeks to prevent the boats from leaving port. A complaint lodged with the Athens port authorities that the American boat was not seaworthy, which then triggered an examination of the vessel, proved to have come from an Israeli ‘lawfare’ group called Shurat Hadin, the Israel Law Centre. The boat, The Audacity of Hope, was meant to leave port on 23 June to rendezvous in international waters with boats coming from elsewhere, but the Greeks said it could not set sail until the inspection was complete. Shurat Hadin is known for making frivolous legal complaints against the Freedom Flotilla. It openly boasts about its anti-flotilla activity on its website.

The flotilla organizers, for their part, insist that they have no intention of harming IDF soldiers and that all the participants have signed a declaration of on-violence. But after issuing a statement that it accepted that there were no ‘extremists’ or ‘Islamist terrorists’ on the boats, the Israeli authorities suddenly reversed their position and claimed that there were two Hamas supporters among approximately 500 people sailing. In addition, Ha’aretz reported, ‘Israeli military spokeswoman Maj. Avital Leibovich on Monday cited intelligence reports saying extremists in the flotilla have “dangerous incendiary chemicals” for use against Israeli forces.’

So it seems that the Israelis are swinging once again into a far more aggressive mode. The Israel Defence Ministry has now proposed setting up a naval court with powers to confiscate boats that attempt to breach the Gaza blockade. The defence minister, Ehud Barak, claims that the flotilla is a ‘an unnecessary provocation’, that there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza and that ‘The real problem is the captivity of [soldier] Gilad Shalit and the fact that more rockets threatening southern Israel are continually being amassed there.’ Foreign Minister Lieberman said today (28 June) that the participants are ‘terror activists seeking to create provocation and looking for blood’.  ‘Unbelievable dissembling’ Mitchell Plitnick called all this in a tweet.

You would think that the Israeli authorities might have learnt a lesson from the disastrous outcome of the May 2010 flotilla when 9 people aboard the Mavi Marmara were killed by Israeli commandos when they boarded the ship. I’m sure that they either think they did or that they believed, deep down, that they had no lesson to learn. Their response to the Gaza flotilla 2 shows all the signs that both are true: one the one hand, behind the scenes pressure on the Greeks, black propaganda either generated by the Israeli government or by proxies who are tacitly or otherwise doing the government’s work for it, possibly sabotage – all in an attempt to discredit the action and even stop it before it got going; on the other hand, outright branding of the activists as terrorists, dupes of Hamas, preparations to board, impound and confiscate the boats – all as an expression of the Israeli official mindset that regards everything in the slightest bit negative that critics say or do about Israel as ‘delegitimization’.

And if you want to get a sense of how Israelis and some Jewish Diaspora leaders have lost all sense of reason in their talking up delegitimization as a phenomenon worse than antisemitism, read – if you can stand it – the long summary of a discussion organized by the Jerusalem Post between four prominent people before they spoke on a panel on delegitimization at the recent Israeli President’s Conference in Jerusalem. (The participants were Professor Irwin Cotler, former justice minister in the Canadian Liberal government, Professor Robert Wistrich, head of the Sassoon International Centre for the Study of Antisemitism at the Hebrew University Jerusalem, Malcolm Hoenlien, executive vice-chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Abraham Foxman, National Director of the Anti-Defamation League and Miri Eisen, former international media advisor to the prime minister.)

The most sensible response and the one most advantageous to the Israeli government was clearly spelt out in a Ha’aretz leader. Analysing what the government has and hasn’t learned since last year, Ha’aretz concludes:

The government seems to be as frightened of the flotilla as one would think it would be of an attack by an armed naval fleet. It is preparing to keep the ships from reaching the Gaza coast as though it were preparing to fight an enemy seeking to infringe on Israeli sovereignty.

It seems to believe that military preparation is what will save Israel’s honour:

The country is not willing to give up a display of power, thereby no doubt contributing to inflating the flotilla’s importance.

Now trying to find ways to reconcile with Turkey, Israel would do well to avoid simultaneously finding new means to engage in conflict with countries whose activists will be on the Gaza-bound ships. A less fearful country would certainly have offered even to go as far as escorting the flotilla to the Gaza coast.

From Israel, we can at least demand that it let the flotilla get through to the Gaza Strip without once again endangering the country’s position in the world.

By allowing the flotilla to dock in Gaza Israel would be showing strength, not weakness. It would be a display of confidence and soft power. There would be no violence, no deaths. And perhaps afterwards, the author Alice Walker might even write of Israel’s readiness to show some understanding and compassion, and of her hope for the possibility of a better future for Palestinians and Israelis.

Now that would do something positive for Israel’s image in the world.

Follow me on Twitter: @tonylerman

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