Anything we can do for you?” the Israeli intelligence officer inquired after 10 minutes of interrogation. Mohamed Vall, an Al Jazeera correspondent who had been on board the Mavi Marmara, was among the VIP detainees the Israelis were handling with care. His hands were cuffed in the front, unlike most activists whose wrists were bound behind their backs; and unlike others, he was allowed the luxury of using the toilet.
Were Mohamed not a friend of mine, I still would have no clue what actually happened after Israeli commandos stormed the Gaza-bound flotilla and cut communications with the outside world. Western media wouldn’t tell me. Sure, I read the newspapers and zapped from CNN to BBC and back again, but it felt like I’d heard it all many times before. The flotilla-part is new, the rest is a ritual: Israeli spokespeople say what they always say — “Any other country in the world would do the same!” — while journalists and politicians engage their conditioned reflex: if they’re Arab, they get carried away with emotions; if they’re Western, they get caught up in their own precautions and end up saying nothing.
While the world has gotten used to the killing of Palestinian civilians, a deadly raid on an aid ship with passengers from 40 different countries is much harder to ignore. But, by and large, the Western world managed quite well. Granted, the story made the headlines and even Israel’s best friends — such as the United States and Germany — showed an unusual degree of indignation that the attack occurred in international waters.
Nonetheless, Arab commentators who tried to transform the tragedy into triumph, arguing that the world is finally waking up to Israeli crimes, don’t seem to have read much of the Western press.
Contrary to what many analysts claim, Israel has not lost the public relations war. It can still rely on thousands of loyal journalists to steer the international debate into side streets before it ever gets to the point. For, if there is one thing more blockaded than Gaza, it’s human common sense when it comes to Middle Eastern politics. How else can you explain that most international media got stuck in a dead-end debate over who had what weapons and who was provoking whom? If fully armed soldiers storm your vessel at 4 a.m., would you assume they’ve come to join morning prayer? Instead of focusing on the fundamentals (like if the blockade itself is illegal under international law, then an attempt to enforce it on a third party cannot be particularly lawful), many Western journalists concluded that “the facts are unclear” and all one can safely state is the need for an “impartial investigation.”
To quote the above mentioned Mohamed Vall: “You got the GPS parameters, you got 600 eye-witnesses, what else do you need?” Eyewitnesses? Heck yes. But where are they? In most mainstream media (with noteworthy exceptions such as The Guardian), eyewitness accounts were scarce. The German press largely ignored even their own members of Parliament who had joined the flotilla, arguing that, if they were on that ship, they were obviously biased and anti-Israel. Instead of listening to passengers, many journalists bought the idea that they were either radical Islamists or crazy leftists “being used by Islamists.” The Western logic seems to be: if it’s a bunch of hippies with dreadlocks doing yoga on the deck, ok, let them reach Gaza. If they wear beards and pray five times a day, then it suddenly seems much more acceptable to stop them from… well, from bringing cement and medicine to a besieged population.
More and more people are not falling for the spin and are managing to think for themselves. But the closer the Western public comes to seeing what’s happening in Gaza, the quicker opinion-makers reassert that “Israel’s fears must be acknowledged” and that “a country that is so isolated urgently needs its friends.”
Israel doesn’t need sheepish friends. It needs to take advice from its critics — and listen to Mohamed’s answer to the question asked by his Israeli interrogators. Sadly, the right reply only came to his mind long after his deportation: “Anything you can do for me? Oh yes, you can. Lift the siege, stop mocking the world, consider Arab lives as precious as Jewish lives… and then, ahlan wa sahlan, live happily ever after.”
STEPHANIE DÖTZER has worked for Al Jazeera English and Germany’s ARD news network. She now freelances in the Middle East