Monday, June 21, 2010

Collateral Damage: “Gaza Freedom Flotilla” Torpedoes Divestment Rationale

It was to be expected that the recent clash in the Mediterranean would reawaken debate over the ethics and efficacy of both Israel’s closure of Gaza and anti-Israel activist movements that backed the disastrous "flotilla" enterprise.  What was perhaps not to be expected was that, amidst the rising tide of information, two minor but telling pieces of evidence could serve as textbook illustrations of the inanity and hollowness of the divestment movement here at home.  First, the context.

The intense struggle over assertion of both facts and interpretation in the wake of Gaza flotilla fracas has produced an intriguing situation for the scholar of history and communications, as both new forces and new communication techniques assumed a larger role in the fray. It’s a phenomenon that arguably began in earnest with the 2006 Lebanon war, when bloggers came into their own, filling a vacuum left by both the state actors and their opponents, on the one hand, and the mainstream media, on the other. The pattern evolved further with “Operation Cast Lead” in 2008-9, as both official and irregular forces on each side began to make even more extensive use of new venues and social media, from Twitter to YouTube.

In the present case, we saw a simple and at first uncritically accepted narrative—armed soldiers enforcing an illegal and inhumane policy massacre unarmed humanitarian activists (indeed, this was the precise message of a sermon preached in a local liberal church; with the added tonic: and yet we hesitate to speak these truths for fear of being called antisemites)—began to yield to a more complex and ambiguous picture. (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9)

Almost immediately, the fight over the interpretation of the fighting took on a life of its own, waged either on the basis of the new evidence or in an attempt to discount it by changing the terms of debate. (Thus, claims that one side was winning the media war might in fact be an attempt to show that it had “really” lost. (1, 2, 3, 4)

Every detail of every statement or image was highlighted, scrutinized, debated. For example, when Israel Defense Forces (IDF) took control of the “Mavi Marmara”—the only one of the six  ships on which a violent confrontation occurred—they cited as evidence in support of their argument that the “activists” came prepared for combat the discovery of knives, clubs, slingshots, stun grenades, ceramic vests, and night vision goggles.

Flash back to the divestment controversy at Hampshire College last year. As readers will recall (and be tired of hearing, I can only hope), Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) falsely claimed that they had manfully forced the administration to divest from "the Israeli occupation of Palestine."  No such thing in fact took place.  In its failed attempt, SJP focused on six corporations that have become popular targets elsewhere. It used the list developed by the New England Conference of the Methodist Church (further proof, if any was needed, that religious groups should not meddle in areas in which they have no competence—which is to say almost everything).

Thus we find ITT pilloried for supplying components of “night vision goggles,” which, the rather clumsily worded document explains, “enable Israel to attack refugee camps and villages in the middle of the night, the time when many of these raids and assaults take place.” The statement is misleading as well as redundant. Even leaving aside the defamatory suggestion that the IDF would deliberately attack civilian “refugee camps and villages,” as such—rather than combatants located there—the fact remains that night vision devices have many purposes.  They can be used by troops of any nation in a legitimate military activity:  ITT supplies them to the armed forces of US, UK, and Canada.  They also play a vital role in search-and rescue operations for victims of airplane crashes and shipwrecks, lost hikers, and other civilians. In fact, ITT equipment enabled police to locate and save victims of Hurricane Katrina.

But wait a minute:  Did you say, "night vision goggles"?
Yes, I did.

For the IDF, the presence of the night-vision equipment on board the "Mavi Marmara" was, in context, just one more piece of evidence confirming  the conclusion that trained and armed Jihadi activists planned for violence from the start.  Supporters of the flotilla scoffed at this logic. One widely-quoted blogger sneered at "exhibit F: night vision equipment, of course utterly useless on high seas." This analysis would come as a surprise to the maritime rescue forces that regularly use the devices—or, indeed, to the flotilla supporters who demanded that our government investigate whether the use of US-supplied equipment, from helicopters to—guess what?—"night vision goggles," in "Israel's act of aggression on the high seas" violated the Arms Export Control Act.

The IDF concluded that the violent Jihadis, who forced the naïve peaceful participants to remain on the lower levels of the ship, were "split into a number of squads of about 20 mercenaries each distributed throughout the upper deck":
T. said he realized the group they were facing was well-trained and likely ex-military after the commandos threw a number of stun grenades and fired warning shots before rappelling down onto the deck. “They didn’t even flinch,” he said. “Regular people would move.”

Each squad of the “mercenaries” was equipped with a Motorola communication device, the IDF said, so they could pass information to one another. Assessments in the defense establishment are that members of the group were affiliated with international global jihad elements and had undergone training in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Did he just say, "Motorola"?

It just so happens that another divestment target at Hampshire College was Motorola, which activists (again, following their  Methodist models) selected because it provides “radar systems for enhancing security at illegal West Bank settlements” (no idea what that means) and supplies the IDF with “advanced“ “cell phone communications” (quelle horreur) and “encrypted wireless communication . . . that will enable military use in the occupied territories and other remote areas.”  "Wireless"? Yes, tough to find a pay phone when you're in combat.  "Encrypted"? Well, armies generally prefer secure communications in the field, wherever that may be.  "Remote"?  Do these guys know anything about geography?  The combined area of the State of Israel and the territories is about the size of Maryland, and the distance from the Jordan River to the sea is only 40 miles.  "Other remote areas"? That would best apply to the Negev desert, but that's been part of Israel from the start.  But "other" implies they're not "occupied," so presumably that's not a problem—unless you're opposed to the state and its right to self-defense, as such. (But I digress; this is not the sort of thing capable of withstanding rational analysis.)

I mentioned ITT and Katrina rescue efforts above.  Well, it turns out (more bad news) that Motorola was even more deeply involved:  it established "a $1 million education fund to help rebuild schools and educate displaced children in the region," and contributed another half a million dollars in further relief efforts, including donations of both equipment and cash.  Perhaps, in their panic, the Katrina victims in the Gentilly district of New Orleans, trapped by both flood and looters, forgot to check for the ITT label on the SWAT team's night vision equipment before they consented to be rescued.  And perhaps their friends and neighbors elsewhere in the hurricane-ravaged south were too busy rebuilding their shattered lives and homes, and just didn't have time to read the moralizing advice of Methodists and Massachusetts activists and learn that Motorola also sold stuff to evil Zionists.

Or: is all forgiven now that these products have received the de facto endorsement of the "Free Gaza Movement" (I can just imagine the testimonials; that's an invitation) and the kosher certificate from anti-Israel bloggers everywhere?

Well, "humanitarian activist" dudes, which is it:  Are night vision equipment and walkie-talkies a tool of oppressive occupation or a weapon of the forces of freedom?

Sound confusing?  That’s precisely my point: Often, the same product can be used for a wide range of purposes, and intention and context are everything (anyone can buy a butcher knife; anyone using that knife to stab someone may be guilty of a crime). To target the manufacturer, absent some very specific and compelling connection, is both unjustified and pointless.  And that's the point, too:  As even sharp but honest critics of Israel will admit, the BDS movement's divestment campaign is not about ending the "occupation" or bringing about "peace": it's about symbolic political victories whose real aim is the delegitimization and ultimate dissolution of a United Nations member state. The divestment game is just that: a game, and a rigged one at that.

But to return from the Mediterranean to Massachusetts.  What happened at Hampshire College?

It did not "divest from Israel" or even "the Israeli occupation of Palestine" in any way. Rather, it duly forwarded the divestment request to the Trustees' investment committee, which found that numerous firms in the given portfolio violated the College's socially responsible investment policy, based on such issues as "employment discrimination, environmental abuse, military weapons manufacturing, unsafe workplace settings, and dealings with Burma or Sudan." Of the six targeted firms, one was not even part of the fund in question, and two—one of which was Motorola—"were given a clean bill of health on Hampshire's policy."  Ironically, Motorola was the only one of the six firms for which activists cited even the remotest explicit “settlement” connection. The rest all produced equipment that—like the other Motorola products cited—could be used, in the territories or elsewhere, for legitimate or illegitimate military purposes.

SJP responded, "a week ago Hampshire College was invested in the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Today, the college is no longer complicit in the funding of this injustice."  As I (and others) have repeatedly pointed out, this is laughable.  In the face of the rejection of the divestment claim by all responsible voices, SJP has subsequently adopted the lame, utterly vague, and increasingly desperate assertion that "divestment still is a statement." (Huh?)

But since this is a game, let's play along with the logic.

Hampshire College is still invested in Motorola.  SJP claimed that Motorola was complicit in the occupation. Ergo, Hampshire is in fact still invested in the occupation.  Now, however, it turns out that the Freedom Flotilla activists saw no problem in using Motorola devices to resist IDF forces.  Will SJP now change its tune and suddenly spin this as evidence of the College’s investment in support of the “Free Gaza” movement?

Nothing would surprise me anymore. Stay tuned.

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