Sydney-based journalist and author Antony Loewenstein is an outspoken critic of Israeli policies and author of the best-selling 2006 book My Israel Question. He is the co-founder of advocacy group Independent Australian Jewish Voices and is a board member of Macquarie University’s Centre for Middle East and North African Studies. Articles and commentary by Loewenstein can be found at Antonyloewenstein.com.
Green Left Weekly’s Tony Iltis spoke with Loewenstein about Israel’s military assault on the unarmed Freedom Flotilla, which sought to bring humanitarian aid to break Israel’s siege of the Palestinian Gaza Strip. At least nine activists were killed in the assault.
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Loewenstein told GLW he was surprised by Israel’s assault on the Freedom Flotilla. “While we’re clearly used to Israel breaking international law by occupying peoples land, killing people, launching unprovoked wars — that’s normal Zionist behaviour.
“But”, he added, “this was surprising because it appears to be so utterly disproportionate, which again is not unique for Israel, but is so counterproductive.”
Loewenstein said the action shows “sheer arrogance and self-delusion”. He said if the action was fully thought through by Israel, “and evidence suggests it was”, then it apparently believed that “whatever Israel was to do, the world would simply accept”.
“Or more importantly, the US would support Israel when it claims it was self-defence.”
He said: “What does seem clear is that Israel believes using overwhelming force in the middle of the night on a humanitarian ship in the middle of the ocean, in international waters, would somehow not provoke some kind of response.
“The argument has been made that the activists on the boat reacted violently and Israel had no choice but to open fire on them.
“In the footage that Israel has released thus far, you do see evidence of the commandos coming from the helicopters and being set upon by activists.
“But what was Israel expecting people to do? Simply lie there and take it? The truth is that Israel was invading a sovereign entity on international waters and people had a right to defend themselves from that attack.”
He told GLW: “The bigger issue here is not this tragedy, but the siege on Gaza. That’s what this is all about.
“It is about the fact that the siege is immoral and counterproductive. This has brought far greater focus onto the blockade of Gaza, which has been going now for three-and-a-half years.
“I did hear that Egypt has opened its border with Gaza temporarily — we don’t know for how long, maybe just three or four days. Of course Egypt’s role in the blockade is just as scandalous as Israel’s.
“In a sense, they’re a client state that does the dirty work of Israel and the US.”
On whether this incident will prove to be a turning point in the struggle for justice and peace in the Middle East, Loewenstein said: “It’s very hard to say. Clearly, there are now growing international calls for the lifting of the siege, including from our Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who’s hardly known for being brave on the Middle East (or on anything really).
“He did come out yesterday and say the siege should be lifted, which is a welcome comment from the Australian government and a very rare one at that.”
But he added, “the government that matters the most is the US”.
“The Obama administration’s response so far has been tepid, to put it mildly. Although they have in the past called for the lifting of the siege, there has not been any comment along those lines in the last 48 hours.”
However, Loewenstein added: “Just this week there was an interview in the [British] Guardian with Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, who said that there was growing contact between his organisation and the Obama administration but America simply hasn’t got the guts to speak out.
“So there was contact. And if there’s going to be any chance of peace, Hamas must be involved in the process.
“We keep hearing so much propaganda that Hamas are like Hitler, and they’re going to destroy all the Jews, that they hate Jews. There are undoubtedly some elements in Hamas that don’t like Jews. I saw this when I was in Gaza.
“But the truth is that they are a pragmatic political organisation that won a democratic election four years ago.”
He said progress to peace could not occur until Israel and the West recognises this. “If they think that continually blockading and isolating Gaza will achieve their interests — well, in fact, it’s having the opposite effect.
“I don’t see any evidence of Israel changing its position on this, frankly, but there needs to be sustained international pressure. If there’s not, and this should have happened a long time ago, there needs to be sustained growing calls and action [targeting Israel with a campaign] of boycott, divestment and sanctions.
“That is the only way Israel will understand — if it feels political pain.”