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Why Did Israel Attack the Gaza Flotilla?

[update: IBN-CNN broadcast news reports that the Turkish government has pledged to send more supply vessels in the Gaza relief effort: "Ankara warned that further supply vessels will be sent to Gaza, escorted by the Turkish Navy, a development with unpredictable consequences."] Last night 15 peace activists were killed and dozens wounded as Israeli forces attacked an unarmed humanitarian aid convoy in international waters off the Gaza Strip coast. Al Jazeera puts the death toll at nineteen, and some accounts report sixty wounded. Among the civilians aboard the six-ship convey carrying 10,000 tons of aid, including wheelchairs, bound for Gaza were an 85 year old Holocaust survivor, European legislators, and a Nobel Peace prize recipient. The Israeli IDF claims that as its commandos boarded the lead ship of the so-called Freedom Flotilla, carrying desperately-needed supplies for residents of the Gaza Strip, "demonstrators" on the Mavi Marmara, "attacked the IDF Naval personnel with live fire and light weaponry including knives and clubs". But the Free Gaza Movement, which organized the flotilla, claims that "Israeli commandoes dropped from a helicopter onto the Turkish passenger ship, Mavi Marmara, and began to shoot the moment their feet hit the deck. They fired directly into the crowd of civilians asleep." As the liberal-center Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz characterized it, the IDF attack on the Mavi Marmara was purely defensive: "The Israel Defense Forces said its troops were to forced to react after they came under fire from the activists while intercepting the convoy." Meanwhile, some liberal American websites are describing the carnage as a "massacre." As Greta Berlin, one of the leaders of the Free Gaza Movement told the New York Times, the Israeli Defense Force account of the incident was "a lie," stressing the absurdity of the claim that civilians on the Mavi Marmara would have been "waiting up to fire on the Israeli military, with all its might.” As shown in footage recorded from a live video stream onboard the Mavi Marmara, during the early stages of the attack a journalist describes Israeli forces opening fire on the ship, killing at least one civilian and wounding several others, after which according to the report Israeli troops continued firing while people on the ship waved white flags. The chaotic footage shows seriously wounded civilians and numerous gunshots can be heard in the background. Israeli military spokesperson Avital Leibovich stated that the attack "happened in waters outside of Israeli territory, but we have the right to defend ourselves." The Freedom Flotilla was attempting to break an ongoing Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip that prevents the import into Gaza of a wide range of items. Human rights groups have warned that the blockade is damaging the health of Gaza's residents, most of whom are children. According to the Israeli human rights group Gisha.org, items barred from Gaza by the blockade include: "sage, cardamom, cumin, coriander, ginger, jam, halva, vinegar, nutmeg, chocolate, fruit preserves, seeds and nuts, biscuits and sweets, potato chips, gas for soft drinks, dried fruit, fresh meat, plaster, tar, wood for construction, cement, iron, glucose, industrial salt, plastic/glass/metal containers, industrial margarine, tarpaulin, sheets for huts, fabric (for clothing), flavor and smell enhancers, fishing rods, various fishing nets, buoys, ropes for fishing, nylon nets for greenhouses, hatcheries and spare parts for hatcheries, spare parts for tractors, dairies for cowsheds, irrigation pipe systems, ropes to tie greenhouses planters for saplings, heaters for chicken farms, musical instruments, size A4 paper, writing implements, notebooks, newspapers, toys, razors, sewing machines and spare parts, heaters, horses, donkeys, goats, cattle, and chicks" According to longtime Mideast observer and specialist Juan Cole, there are two likely reasons for the violent incident aboard the Mavi Marmara were:
"One is that the Israeli troops boarding the vessels met some sort of resistance and over-reacted. Aid volunteers are unlikely, however, to have posed much real challenge to trained special forces operatives. The other possible reason is that the far rightwing government of Binyamin Netanyahu and his foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman gave a green light to the commandos to respond with excessive force. That is, the deaths and woundings may have been a brutally frank warning to any future Gaza aid activists that they are taking their lives in their hands if they plan any more flotillas to help the Palestinians. The Israeli far right may have felt that there was otherwise a danger that in a few months there would be an even bigger flotilla and that eventually the blockade of Gaza would be broken."
As Cole goes on to describe, the Israeli right views all Gazans, even children, as "terrorists" a view he calls "paranoid and inhumane." In 2006 Dov Weisglass, adviser to then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, stated that Israel's blockade of Gaza was "to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger." But according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 61% percent of Gazans, 65% of whom are children under the age of 18, are "food insecure" and the level of anemia in infants 9-12 months old was as high as 65.5%. As Salon.com's Glenn Greenwald observes, concerning the ongoing effects of the blockade on the Gazan population and economy,
"At the end of 2009, a U.N. report found that "insufficient food and medicine is reaching Gazans, producing a further deterioration of the mental and physical health of the entire civilian population since Israel launched Operation Cast Lead against the territory," and also "blamed the blockade for continued breakdowns of the electricity and sanitation systems due to the Israeli refusal to let spare parts needed for repair get through the crossings."