What if you knew her and found her dead on the ground?

Posted by Sappho on June 5th, 2010 filed in News and Commentary, Peace Testimony

As I’ve been reading this week’s coverage, in various countries’ papers, of the Freedom Flotilla incident, I’ve been haunted by the memory of Kent State. Why? Well, M.S., one of the now no longer totally anonymous bloggers at the Economist’s Democracy in America blog, cynically suggested that “Violent protest is actually more effective“, and wrote

Five of the six ships taken over by Israeli commandos put up no resistance. They didn’t make the news. The sixth, the Mavi Marmara, had about 600 passengers on board, and of those, 570 or so appear to have stayed below deck as the commandos arrived. They didn’t make the news either. The other 30 went up on deck. As is clear in video of the clash released over the past day, they attacked the commandos as they landed one by one, beating them with metal pipes and chairs, trying to strip their body armor and guns, and throwing them over the side of the ship. This led the commandos to respond with live ammunition, ultimately killing at least nine protestors.

That made the news.

I look and those numbers, and I’m reminded of how, even when crowds turn violent (whether from spontaneous anger or fear, as I suspect was the case on that day 40 years ago at Kent State, or as a result of a prior plan, as was the case in the Battle of Seattle), most of the people present are either people who were just going about their business in a place where they belonged anyway (like the now dead Sandy Scheuer) or people who showed up expecting a peaceful protest (like the vast majority of the protesters in Seattle in 1999).

So I mean to talk a bit about the crowd control aspect of the raid on the Freedom Flotilla. But, because talking about crowd control may suggest more sympathy for the Israeli narrative than in this case I actually have, first let me say a few words about the bigger picture.

  1. A two state solution. It’s the only thing that I can see working for both Israeli and Palestinian long term security.
  2. For a two state solution to work, it’s paramount that both states be able to manage their own security and maintain secure borders. That may mean never getting some things that in strict justice you may feel entitled to.
  3. My general sense of where Israel has been heading in recent years corresponds to the words of Noah Millman
  4. .

    … And it’s a much-noted fact that while the right wing parties get bigger and bigger, the policies espoused by the center on fundamental matters such as whether there should be a viable Palestinian state keep moving to the left. (Kadima’s stance today on this question is well to the left of where Rabin’s Labor Party was, for example, and roughly in line with where Barak’s Labor Party was.) But I think these respective moves to the left and the right are two sides of the same coin. Support for a two-state solution remains high, and the overwhelming majority of centrist leaders in Israel now support it, including a recognition that the capital of a Palestinian state will be in Jerusalem. But the Israeli Jewish public perceives these as painful retreats from a cherished dream, and as the retreats multiply and the “other side” continues to fight, the response is a kind of primal anger….

  5. Naturally on the Palestinian side I’d like to see Fatah win its political struggle with Hamas.
  6. I believe in the rule of law, and I believe that we should act in accordance with international law (for example, observing Geneva Conventions in how we treat POWs). That doesn’t mean I expect any law, including international law, to always make sense or suit my own intuition about what’s just. For that reason, I confess to having no idea whether Israel’s (and Egypt’s) blockade of Gaza is technically in accordance with international law.
  7. On the other hand, in the draconian version in which it’s currently implemented (with a wide range of civilian goods that go beyond the military goods that Israel reasonably wants to keep out of Hamas’ hands), I believe it involves a form of collective punishment that’s both unjust and not helping Israel’s own interest. Like the decades long US embargo of Cuba, it’s an action that brings domestic political benefit without actually weakening the government against whom it’s imposed.
  8. The Jerusalem Post is probably right that at least some of the recent deterioration in Israeli-Turkish relations is related to the mildy Islamist AKP’s attempts to outmaneuver the secular CHP and the secular military in internal Turkish politics.
  9. However, those Israeli-friendly commentators who have extrapolated from this to suggest that the Freedom Flotilla was some sort of trap set by a Turkish government eager to shed its friendship with Israel are making a highly implausible argument. What, the IDF elite force which was right on the scene had no idea that the crowd it could actually observe might turn violent, but the Turkish government knew about well in advance when the ships left port? Were the men fighting with sticks and hoses and chairs all close personal friends of Erdogan, that he was in on their plans? When Turkey and Greece allowed ships to depart their ports, when German parliamentarians joined the flotilla, none of the governments involved had any reason to expect anything other than a peaceful protest, which the IDF would divert with minimal force, as it had previous ships. Turkey is royally pissed off because any country would be, that suddenly found out that its ally had killed nine of its citizens.

Having talked about the big picture, I’ll now move on to the small picture: crowd control. We have competing stories about exactly who started the use of force and when. We have videos from Al Jazeera and the IDF that display parts of the action, none of which provides enough context to know for sure exactly how the shooting began. Talking Points Memo attempts to round up here what is known.

My own personal reading of how it came down is similar to Leon Wieseltier’s (already linked by my Alexandria co-blogger Steve:

I have pondered the videos that both sides have released, and concluded that the Israeli soldiers sliding down that rope had no intention of attacking the people on board and that the people on board had no way of being confident of this. I cannot expect Palestinians and their supporters to believe the best about the Israeli army.

This conclusion may sound Pollyannaish to some, but I have my reasons. I don’t expect the Israeli army always to be nice, but I expect them usually to be competent. In the Freedom Flotilla raid, the IDF lowered its troops one by one into an angry crowd, which, as numerous people have pointed out, was a fast roping fail. While this move obviously wasn’t a high point of IDF competence, to suppose that the IDF encountered a crowd whom they already considered hostile enough to shoot with live ammunition, shot just enough live ammunition not to disperse the crowd at all, and then rappelled down one by one, seems to me too stupid a move to be likely. More likely, they encountered a crowd that they expected to resist less forcefully than it did, applied crowd control measures (Maybe shooting whatever was in the paintball guns? See here for discussion of the use of paintball guns at sea and what you might put in them) that some of the activists interpreted as the IDF already shooting before anyone had begun to resist, and then rappelled down. Meanwhile, on the activist side, it seems to me that if the activists had planned their resistance in advance, they’d have been using less improvised weapons. I do not buy that they had to have prepared ahead of time to inflict the injuries they did on the IDF; they outnumbered the IDF soldiers due to the one by one entry mode the IDF was using.

In fact, as Israel has released the activists and they have returned to their countries, we now have varied accounts, by passengers on various ships on the flotilla, of what choices the activists made, what plans they had made for encountering the IDF, and how they expected the IDF to respond. My Facebook friends have posted Youtube videos of Huwaida Arraf and several German activists, and I’ve seen accounts from other activists in articles. It turns out that the Mavi Marmara was not the only ship that chose to resist IDF attempts to board and take control, but people on other ships used less forceful means of resistance.

Huwaida Arraf, a US citizen riding in the Challenger, says that her ship tried to outrun IDF, that when boarded activists tried to use only their bodies to resist, and got beaten. She saw grenades and firing onto Mavi Marmara prior to the boarding attempt, but is not sure what kind of ammunition was used.

Five of the eleven Germans who were in the flotilla, including two parliamentarians, were interviewed in a video that has been posted to Youtube. They say that people on the deck of the Mavi Marmara just had sticks, and the IDF’s attack was “Absolutely planned shock and awe aggression. They came from the helicopters … and started shooting.” They described the Israeli forces as having fired tear gas grenades before firing live ammunition. It caused panic on the boat. They were expecting Israeli resistance, but not anything as “brutal” as this.

64-year-old Paul Larudee, interviewed for an article in Salon magazine, says that he tried to defend wheelhouse on his ship (again, with his body only) and got tased. He later tried to swim away, and got caught and beaten and tied to the mast.

Edward Peck, on the Sfendoni, saw relatively little violence on his ship. He reports that

There was some anticipation among those on board that they could encounter the Israeli military, but the ship did not have procedures in place to deal with such an encounter, such using a bullhorn or flares …

The Turkish humanitarian group on the Gaza ship denies accusations against them.

Atalay, who was on the Mavi Marmara when nine people were killed, told the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review on Friday that all the passengers had volunteered for the aid trip and that many who wanted to join were turned away due to a lack of space on the vessels.

“Everybody on the ship were people in their right minds, who were cultured and knew what they were doing,” Atalay said.

The picture I get from these stories is that the activists expected the IDF to act, but didn’t expect them to act as they did, and that they’d talked about how they’d react to the IDF, but hadn’t laid out procedures (whether nonviolence training, or bullhorns, or planned prior organization of resistance, either violent or passive). I also get the impression, from the activist side, that they possibly didn’t expect the IDF to act while they were still in international waters (since the IDF made the raid at around 4am, I assume it was done while the flotilla was still in international waters in hopes of catching everyone asleep).

In the wake of the attack, and because it was in international waters, some have justified the resistance on the Mavi Marmara as an act of self-defense against an act of piracy, and some of these have gone on to say that they themselves, if they were in the same situation, would have fought in the same way. Well, some of you might have, but most of you probably wouldn’t have. There’s a reason that, from Kent State to the Battle of Seattle to the Mavi Marmara, the activists who are actually using force are generally in the minority. For most people, Niven’s Law 1a, “Never throw shit at an armed man,” comes naturally.

I don’t say this, though, to support the IDF’s contention that they couldn’t have foreseen the level of resistance they would meet, because Niven’s law 1b, “Never stand next to someone who is throwing shit at an armed man,” doesn’t always prove as easy to follow. One of the reasons demonstrators often go through nonviolence training is that keeping your demonstration peaceful isn’t always easy.

In the Battle of Seattle, certain affinity groups destroyed property, some local youths spontaneously looted, and a large number of peaceful activists, some of whom hadn’t even planned civil disobedience, suddenly found themselves at the wrong end of pepper spray and tear gas.

At Kent State, some activists threw rocks and tear gas cannisters at the National Guard, who later claimed to have been shooting in fear of their own lives. When the dead were tallied, they consisted of Jeffrey Miller, who was observed throwing a tear gas cannister at the National Guard, Allison Krause, who was in the demonstration but who was never reported to have thrown shit at armed men, Bill Shroeder, a ROTC student who was trying to leave the scene and got shot in the back, and Sandy Scheuer, who had nothing whatsoever to do with the demonstration, but was walking across campus and came into the line of fire.

I don’t know whether, at the time the IDF started firing live bullets, all the people on the Mavi Marmara who had never had any intention of actually fighting the IDF had managed to get out of the way. What I do know is that, in general, any time you hear that crowd control has gone astray because the crowd proved more violent than expected (whether because some in the crowd planned it or because some in the crowd panicked and jumped into fight mode rather than flight mode), most of the people on the scene are neither brave nor foolish enough to join in the violent resistance.

The vast majority of the students on the scene at Kent State never dreamed of throwing shit at armed men.

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