Israel has firmly rejected any idea of an international and independent inquiry into the conduct of the botched raid on the Mavi Marmara. Realistically, it was bound to do so.
However, it has gone as far as it can toward repairing some of the terrible publicity the event has generated and toward providing a certain level of assurance that the results of its own inquiry will be fair. Appointing two highly-respected and well-qualified outsiders to act as observers of the process is a step in the right direction.
Both former Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble and Canadian military lawyer Ken Watkin have been through the political fire. Neither is likely to be impressed by deliberate obfuscation or special pleading. On the other hand, each will have a firm grasp of both the tactical and strategic context of the flotilla tragedy and will bring a certain hard-headed realism to the questions that will be raised.
This inquiry, though, however necessary it may be, is a sideshow. The real issue is Gaza, and behind that the whole question of a remedy for the Middle Eastern ulcer.
According to the United Nations, as a consequence of Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip, 98 percent of industrial operations have been shut down since 2007 and there are acute shortages of fuel, cash, cooking gas and other basic supplies. Building materials cannot be imported because they might be used for terrorist purposes so 6,400 houses destroyed by Israel can’t be rebuilt, and 3,500 families are still displaced.
Catherine Ashton, high representative of the European Union for foreign affairs and security policy, visited Gaza three months ago. In a recent Times article, she describes conditions as being “as bizarre as they were grim.” The list of goods they are allowed to import defies logic: fresh fruit but not fruit preserves or dried fruit; flour but not, until recently, pasta. Supplies are smuggled in but go to people with money and influence. Consequently “normal, decent people, denied the chance to lead normal lives, become progressively more resentful.”
The Gaza situation polarizes opinion, and the poles are sterile regions, inhospitable to human life. At one extreme, the idea that the blockade should be unconditionally lifted does not meet the pressing need of Israel for security. Hamas controls Gaza, and Hamas is a deadly enemy. At the other is the idea that Gaza deserves all it gets, that its people are suffering the just punishment for electing a terrorist government, and that its children will grow up to be terrorists anyway.
In a sermon at St Margaret’s Church, the Archbishop of Canterbury offered a profound reflection on the nature of government, and on the responsibility of government to the people. He was not talking about Gaza, but in the light of that continuing tragedy his words take on an added resonance.
He spoke of the command to “give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God.”
The latter, he said, meant “setting human agents free, acknowledging and reinforcing the dignity in which God has clothed them.” Shared dignity and “civic warmth,” “the sense of being able to trust not only immediate neighbors but the wider social fabric,” are the hallmarks of a society that functions as God intends.
In the United Kingdom, the difficulties in the way of achieving such a society are inertia, self-interest, folly and lack of imagination. These alone are daunting enough. But in Gaza there are, on both sides of the border, the hostilities of generations, a burning sense of injustice, deep fears and deep desires for revenge. And yet the people of Gaza and of Israel are as entitled to see this vision fulfilled as we are.
Israel is the overwhelmingly mighty regional power. If it were less mighty, it might show more courage and more imagination.
Reconciliation has to begin with Israel acknowledging that it is not engaged in a total war with an enemy state, but in a police action against certain hostile elements within it. If it eases its boot on the Palestinians’ neck, there may yet be a future and a hope for all God’s children in that troubled land.