Skip to main content

U.S. groups react to violence off Gaza coast

By Paul Frysh, CNN
Jewish activists protest the Israeli action off the coast of Gaza.
Jewish activists protest the Israeli action off the coast of Gaza.
  • AIPAC: "Israeli soldiers were forced to use live ammunition to defend themselves"
  • "The intention ... was to attract attention to the blockade," another group says
  • Gaza blockade "has achieved little," J Street claims
  • Blockade is "legal, and it's necessary," advocate says

(CNN) -- The reaction from U.S. groups that advocate for Jewish and Israeli causes to the recent violence off the coast of Gaza has run the gamut from outright condemnation of Israel to full support for its actions.

This week, Israeli commandos boarded six aid ships that were headed to the coast of Gaza, where the Israeli government has instituted a blockade. After Israeli commandos boarded one of the ships, several people were killed and several soldiers injured.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the most prominent advocate for Israeli issues in Washington, said on its website: "Despite issuing numerous warnings throughout the week that the Gaza coast was a closed military zone, and offering to deliver all legal supplies to Gaza through the Israeli port of Ashdod, the flotilla proceeded toward the Gaza shore, seeking confrontation with Israel."

Also, the group said, "Israeli soldiers were forced to use live ammunition to defend themselves."

Israel has a right to defend itself, the advocate groups said, but there was disagreement over whether the flotilla posed a real threat.

"Many countries have had naval blockades," said Malcolm Hoenlein, president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. "Few are more justified than Israel facing a terrorist organization [Hamas] ... and denying them access to the missiles."

Gallery: Gaza aid convoy
  • Gaza
  • Israel
  • Turkey
  • Hamas

The thousands of rockets fired into Israel by Hamas show that the threat is a real one, Hoenlein said.

"Do you know how many ships have smuggled arms into Gaza under the guise of humanitarian aid, under all sorts of subterfuges: fishing boats, commercial vehicles? ... There is a long track record and history of the smuggling that goes in by sea."

Israel, said Hoenlein, told members of the flotilla that it would allow the aid into Gaza but simply wanted to inspect it first and send it through the Israeli port city of Ashdod.

"If they were really interested in getting humanitarian aid into Gaza, why didn't they simply go into Ashdod port, unload onto trucks, ride with the trucks into Gaza? Because that's not what their interest was."

Ori Nir, spokesman for the advocacy group Americans for Peace Now, agrees that the primary intention of the flotilla was not aid, but he believes that their real intention was equally innocuous. "The intention of the people on the ship was to attract attention to the blockade -- to the humanitarian situation in Gaza.

"It was clear that this was, more than anything, a media event."

Israel intercepted the ships in the hopes of rerouting them and avoiding the public spectacle of the boats arriving triumphantly in Gaza, Nir said. But Israel's heavy-handed approach "actually achieved the very opposite outcome," he said.

Nir said Israel has every right to defend itself and to intercept arms off its coast if it has reason to feel threatened. But this case is different, he said, because Israel knew or should have known that there was no real threat of arms smuggling from this flotilla.

Watch iReport of Jewish and other activists protesting against Israeli action

"The packing of the materials was done publicly. It was clear what was there. It was clear who was on the ship."

But, Hoenlein thinks the flotilla did pose a real threat, as evidenced by the violent reaction to the Israeli commandos and its alleged ties to terrorist organizations. "You will see, as the information comes out, of their association and involvement in Islamist terrorist organizations," he said. He cited the Humanitarian Relief Foundation, also known as IHH, which he said has ties to terrorists.

Israel was, if anything, restrained in its approach, Hoenlein said.

The commandos "didn't do anything confrontational. They could have rammed the ships. They could have sunk the ships. They could have opened fire initially and would have avoided any confrontation and risk of their soldiers. Instead they chose the means most likely to produce a peaceful outcome."

Those who confronted the Israeli commandos were "not peace activists, not humanitarian-motivated people, [but] terrorists," he said.

Still, reports show that no serious weaponry or war materials were found on the flotilla, making the violence pointless and counterproductive for Israel's interests, Nir said. "The bloodshed, the use of force, really only served those who don't have Israel's best interests at heart."

The real culprit in the flotilla violence, he said, is the blockade itself.

"Regardless of the details of the incident, we believe that the emphasis should be on changing the policy toward Gaza altogether -- the policy relating to the incident -- the blockade.

"As long as you have a policy that is unsustainable ... you will have incidents that are unacceptable," Nir said.

Amy Spitalnick, spokeswoman for J Street, a Washington nonprofit advocating for a two-state solution in the region, agrees.

"The blockade of Gaza has had very limited success over the past three years. Hamas remains in power and is better armed today than it was before [the blockade]," she said.

The blockade, said Spitalnick, "has achieved little."

But Hoenlein said the blockade has prevented violence by reducing the influx of weapons that Hamas has used in the past both against Israel and against Fatah, its rival for power in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority. "The quantity and quality of weapons that you can bring in by ship are so much greater than what you can do by any other smuggling."

Although he would prefer a world where the blockade was not needed, right now, he says, "It's legal, and it's necessary."