Despite revelations from a detailed investigation by a special commission of the United Nations Human Rights Council confirming that Israel committed war crimes, the overwhelming majority of both Republican and Democratic members of Congress remain on record defending the Israeli attack as legitimate self-defense. This is particularly striking given evidence presented in the report that five of the nine people killed, including a 19-year-old US citizen, were murdered – shot execution-style by Israeli commandos.
In a letter to President Barack Obama dated June 17, 329 out of 435 members of the US House of Representatives announced that they “strongly support” Israel’s May 31 attack on a humanitarian aid flotilla in international waters, which resulted in the deaths of nine passengers and crew and injuries to scores of others. Similarly, a June 21 Senate letter – signed by 87 out of 100 senators – went on record “fully” supporting what it called “Israel’s right to self-defense.”
The House letter insisted that “Israeli forces used necessary force as an act of self-defense and of last resort.” Similarly, the Senate letter refers to the murders of passengers and crew resisting the illegal boarding of their vessel in international waters as a situation where the Israeli raiders were “forced to respond to that attack” when they “arrived” on the ship.
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If these members of Congress believe that a foreign government has the right to murder an American peace activist on the high seas, it inevitably raises questions as to how they might react to the murder of peace activists by local, state or the federal government here at home.
There were other troubling aspects of these letters as well.
The House letter urged President Obama “to remain steadfast in defense of Israel” in the face of the near universal international condemnation of this blatant violation of international maritime law and other legal statutes, which the signatories referred to as “a rush to unfairly judge and condemn Israel.” The Senate letter condemned the near unanimous vote of the UN Human Rights Council for what it called “singling out” Israel, even though no other country in recent memory has attacked a humanitarian aid flotilla in international waters. Both letters called upon the United States to veto any resolution in the UN Security Council criticizing the Israeli attack.
The Senate letter also claimed that the widely supported effort to relieve critical shortages of food and medicine in the besieged Gaza Strip was simply part of a “clever tactical and diplomatic ploy” by “Israel’s opponents” to “challenge its international standing.”
Many of the key arguments in the letters were misleading and, in some cases, factually inaccurate.
The Israeli government had acknowledged prior to the writing of the letter that the extensive blockade of humanitarian goods was not necessary for their security, but as a means of pressuring the civilian population to end their support for Hamas, which won a majority of legislative seats in the most recent Palestinian election. In addition, the Israeli government announced a significant relaxation of the embargo two days after the letter was written. Despite this, the House letter claimed that the purpose of the blockade was “to stop terrorists from smuggling weapons to kill innocent civilians,” thereby placing this large bipartisan majority of the House even further to the right than Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu’s rightist coalition.
There was no mention in the letter than no such weapons were found on board any of the six ships hijacked by the Israelis nor on the previous eight ships the Free Gaza Campaign had sailed or attempted to sail to the Gaza Strip. In addition, even though the ships had been thoroughly inspected by customs officials prior to their disembarkation, the House letter claimed that had the Israelis not hijacked the ships, they would have “sailed unchecked into Gaza.”
Similarly, according to the Senate letter, Israel’s naval blockade was necessary “to keep dangerous goods from entering Gaza by sea” and falsely claimed that the intent of the Israeli blockade was “to protect Israel, while allowing humanitarian aid into Gaza.” Particularly striking is the fact that, despite that the International Committee of the Red Cross and a broad consensus of international legal experts recognize that the Israeli blockade of humanitarian goods is illegal, the Senate letter insisted that the blockade “is legal under international law.”
The House letter also claimed that the other ships were “commandeered peacefully and without incident,” even though on the other ships, despite completely nonviolent resistance, passengers were tasered and brutally beaten and were attacked with tear gas and rubber bullets. Similarly, the Senate letter insisted that, in spite of these potentially fatal beatings and other assaults, “Israeli forces were able to safely divert five of the six ships challenging the blockade.”
Even though the Israeli government has never entered Gaza to disperse aid to the people of that territory since the start of the siege years earlier and reputable relief organizations have documented that the Israelis had routinely refused to allow humanitarian aid to enter the Gaza Strip, these House members claimed that Israel had offered to “disperse the aid … directly to the people of Gaza.” And, despite the fact that the five aid ships that Israel had allowed to dock in Gaza in previous months had distributed their humanitarian cargo directly to those in need, the senators claimed that it would have otherwise gone “into the hands of corrupt Gaza officials.”
Learning what actually transpired in the tragic incident was apparently of little interest to the 87 senators who signed the letter defending the attack. Despite the whitewash in the internal Israeli investigation, the senate letter supported Israel’s alleged intention to carry out “a thorough investigation of the incident,” insisting that Israel “has the right to determine how its investigation is conducted.” This comes in spite of a public opinion poll that showed a clear majority of Americans – including 65 percent of Democrats – favored an international inquiry over allowing Israel alone to investigate the circumstances of the attack.