Editor’s Note: The word “terrorism” is often thrown around imprecisely or selectively, a kind of geopolitical epithet. But the word has real consequences because, once applied, it can then be used to justify punitive actions toward a target population, behavior that someone else might deem “terrorism.”

In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the cycle of violence and counter-violence – all justified by the some prior outrage or injustice – has brought the region much bloodshed but little hope. Now, with Israel’s fatal commando raid at sea, there has been another turn in the cycle, as the Independent Institute’s Ivan Eland notes in this guest essay:

Israel maintains that it ordered the flotilla to divert to the Israeli port of Ashdod from the blockaded Gaza coast. When the ship did not do so, Israel launched a commando raid that killed at least nine passengers and wounded dozens more. At least seven Israeli soldiers were wounded in the attack.

The Israelis maintain that their soldiers, boarding the ships by repelling from helicopters, were attacked by the passengers with metal rods, knives, slingshots, and two pistols commandeered from the soldiers themselves.

The Israelis released a video from early in the operation showing passengers attacking the military men, who claimed to carry only paintball guns and pistols that they didn’t expect to use. The Israelis claimed they killed the aggressive passengers only in self-defense.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, at a press conference, claimed, “The entire flotilla is a political and media provocation by anti-Israeli activists. They have absolutely nothing to do with humanitarian aid.”

The passengers have a different story. One al-Jazeera reporter maintained that the Israelis shot at the ships before boarding. The organizers of the flotilla maintain that the commandos began shooting from the time they landed on the ship at 4 a.m. and released videos to support that position.

Yet even if we disregard flotilla organizers’ rendition of events and charitably accept Israel’s story as what happened, Israel is still culpable. The Israeli military attacked unarmed ships in international waters about 41 miles from the Israeli coastline — well beyond the 12-mile limit of Israeli territorial waters — to enforce an illegal and inhumane blockade of Gaza.

The blockade is a violation of international law and an act of war. Thus, the passengers of any ship being illegally attacked have a right to defend themselves with any armaments they can scrounge up, including pistols captured from incompetent commandos.

The Israelis claiming self-defense while in attack mode is similar to what their former patron, George W. Bush, claimed as he invaded the sovereign state of Iraq. As with Bush, the Israelis have always believed that “the best defense is a good offense.”

Not only were the Israelis in attack mode, they used what French President Nicolas Sarkozy aptly called “the disproportionate use of force” against the flotilla. After all, the flotilla contained aid supplies for the Gazan people, not weapons going to Hamas.

Einat Wilf, a member of the Israeli parliament’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, admitted, “This had nothing to with security. The armaments for Hamas were not coming from this flotilla.”

Before the attack, she had cautioned the Israeli government that this was a public relations issue, not a military one.

The Israelis have repeatedly justified the total blockade of Gaza on the basis of preventing such weapons from reaching Hamas and have also maintained that no humanitarian crisis in Gaza exists because of the quarantine.

But the United Nations and non-governmental organizations have debunked the latter notion. And even though the Obama administration supports the Israeli blockade, Obama’s aides say that he has privately criticized the poor humanitarian conditions in Gaza.

It is clear that the Israelis only let enough supplies through the blockade to prevent an immediate humanitarian disaster and politically manipulate the strictures by saying nothing will change until an Israeli soldier captured by Hamas has been returned.

Terrorism is usually defined as harming a population by collective punishment to pressure its leadership to make political changes. Normally we think of small groups terrorizing a population with bombs, but governments purposefully killing civilians with bombs (such as the allies did to Japan and Germany in World War II) or inducing starvation and illness with a more slow-motion blockade should also be considered terrorism.

It is appalling that civilized nations, such as Israel and its U.S. patron, are committing or endorsing, respectively, this illegal and immoral quarantine.
The one silver lining to Israel’s unconscionable attack on a humanitarian flotilla is that its reprehensible collective punishment of Gazans through blockade likely will be made politically “unsustainable.”

Ivan Eland is Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland has spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. His books include The Empire Has No Clothes: U.S. Foreign Policy Exposed, and Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy.

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