Just like the use of chemical weapons on Palestinian civilians last year, the killing of at least nine activists by Israeli commandoes has sent shockwaves around the world. But, just as in 2009, much of the criticism has been in muted tones.
An emergency meeting of the UN Security Council has been called, and no one is denying that the matter is being taken incredibly seriously, but it's hard not to feel that were this any other state- say Iran, Lebanon or Zimbabwe, the response of ‘the West’ may have been much stronger. So far William Hague has merely called for Israel “to act with restraint and in line with international obligations”, whilst a White House spokesman has stated that the US "deeply regrets the loss of life" and is "currently working to understand the circumstances surrounding this tragedy". It's hardly a robust reaction to the state-sanctioned killing of civilians transporting aid.
There are obvious reasons for this. Facts are still emerging about exactly what transpired– and there is no doubt that physical resistance was put up by the activists (though it’s difficult to see how this could merit the fatal shooting of nine people or, indeed, why Israel felt it necessary to storm the boats with armed commandoes in the first place.) Then of course there’s the fact that Israel is a key 'Western' ally in the Middle East and thus a rather mild opposition to its actions is to be expected.
But there’s another factor that always means 'Western' criticism of Israel is often somewhat toned-down; namely its tragic history and vulnerable political situation. The regional hostility that Israel has faced since its creation, the horrendous terrorist attacks that it has been subjected to (both on its own soil and abroad in incidents such as the Munich massacre) and, of course, the fact that it was formed as a safe haven for Jews in the wake of the Holocaust- all combine to foster a widespread reluctance among 'Western' states when subjecting it to scrutiny.
It reminds me of something that an aid worker told me at a conference last year concerning the human rights abuses in today’s Rwanda. She pointed out that, despite suppression of political dissent, gross misconduct in the justice system and restrictions on media freedom, the international community is very hesitant to criticise President Paul Kagame and his party-the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) because these are the very people who stepped in and stopped the nation's genocide while the rest of the world stood idly by. This claim is upheld by Richard Dowden, the Director of the Royal African Institute, who goes as far as saying that Rwanda is given “free reign” because of what he terms “Rwandan guilt.”
It is, perhaps, a natural stance to take. World leaders feel sympathy and regret for what a nation has been through – and attempt to make up for this by dampening down any criticism. But this is a very dangerous path to go down. After all – Robert Mugabe and the Iranian Islamist regime both overthrew oppressive governments who had subjected their people to terrible abuses – but this shouldn’t (and doesn't) stop us from criticising them.
Simiarly, we should celebrate Kagame’s victory over the perpetrators of genocide but still be free to harshly criticise his regime when Rwandan journalists are thrown into jail without trial. We should support Israel’s right to exist – and sympathise with the hardships it has faced- but still be free to strongly condemn it when aid activists are shot dead or civilian areas are bombarded with white phosphorous. Whilst recognising that the wider political context is always important, human rights must be viewed as basic, universal and fundamental.
And that means unrestrainedly criticising abuses wherever they occur, whoever they are committed by.