William Polk on the Context of the Gaza Confrontation
To understand the Israeli attack on the Gaza convoy yesterday, I think we need to remember three events that, I believe, have conditioned Israel’s view of what Thomas Jefferson called “decent respect to the opinions of mankind.” Not only on issues where Israeli actions have been criticized, but also in response to direct attacks on the United States, successive American governments have literally turned the other cheek. Remember just three instances to see how they may have conditioned what Israel expected from the United States in response to its action yesterday.
The first test of American resolve to protect its own personnel and its own installations came in the 1954 Lavon Affair (code named by Israel “Operation Susannah”). Then members of the Israeli intelligence force, MOSSAD, burned down an American government building in Alexandria to attempt to sour American-Egyptian relations. (The Israeli government decorated the attackers in 2005.) This event was quickly hushed up.
The second, and far more serious, test came in the 1967 Israeli armed forces (Naval, Air and Commando) attempt to sink the United States Naval ship, Liberty, then sailing in international waters off Gaza and to kill all its crew.
Briefly, what happened was this: The American government had been concerned with the build-up of Soviet armaments in Egypt and sent the electronics surveillance ship, Liberty, and several Air Force C-130 and Navy EC-121M aircraft to monitor radio traffic in the Eastern Mediterranean. Based primarily on U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) records, supplemented by CIA, DOD and other American papers and Israeli government papers – most of which were withheld for over 35 years -- James Bamford recounts in his excellent and solidly researched book, Body of Secrets (New York: Doubleday, 2001, 185 ff), what then happened.
Shortly after Israel attacked Egyptian forces in the Sinai, it cut off and took prisoner a large number of Egyptian troops. At El Arish, just 13 miles from the Liberty, the Israeli army began killing their prisoners, whose hands were bound behind their backs, and discussed doing so on the radio. As Bamford wrote, “the Liberty had suddenly trespassed into a private horror.”
Egyptian soldiers were not the only casualties: a convoy of Indian UN peacekeeping soldiers was attacked and a number of the soldiers were killed while UN headquarters in Gaza, flying the UN flag, was “blasted” by Israeli tanks. Bamford quotes confirming evidence from the Israeli military historian Aryeh Yitzhaki. A number of other instances of such killings were later confirmed. Bamford believes that the Israelis were afraid that the Liberty had intercepted evidence of these acts and determined to destroy the evidence by sinking it.
The Israelis first observed the Liberty during the morning of June 8 from an Israeli Air Force Noratlas NORD 2501. The ship was identified at Israeli naval headquarters not only from naval reference books but by seeing its name painted in large letters on both sides of the hull with a huge American flag flying on the mast. All morning, the Liberty was under constant observation, being circled according to the deck officer, thirteen times. It was the only ship in the area. At 12:05 PM, three motor torpedo boats and a number of Mirage IIIC jet fighters attacked it: in the first run, they killed a number of the crew and shot out most of the radio gear. However, the ship got in a “mayday” distress call to the USN Sixth Fleet. The EC-121 high overhead recorded one of the Israeli pilots saying, “Great, wonderful, she’s burning.” Israeli ground control headquarters asked, “Menachem, is he screwing her?” He was, indeed: “A later analysis would show 821 separate hits on the hull and superstructure…[and estimated that] it would take a squadron of fifteen or more planes to do such damage…”
Then the serious slaughter began with napalm and thousand-pound bombs. The captain managed to hoist the largest American flag, a so-called “holiday ensign,” just before three torpedo boats attacked firing cannon and launching five torpedoes. (Fortunately, only one hit.) The boats and aircraft then systematically destroyed the life rafts and life boats still aboard and those that had been launched in the sea. As one sailor later said, “It was obvious that no one was meant to survive this assault.” Another said, “If you jumped overboard, the way these people were attacking us, we knew they would shoot us in the water.”
At 3:28 PM (local time), the aircraft carriers USS Saratoga and America scrambled aircraft and National Security Council director Walt Rostow advised President Johnson of the attack. As Bamford recounts, “According to NSA documents classified top secret/umbra [a code classification beyond Top Secret]…[NSA Deputy Director Louis] Tordella was told that some senior officials in Washington wanted above all to protect Israel from embarrassment…that consideration was then being given to sink[ing] the Liberty in order that newspaper men would be unable to photograph her and thus inflame public opinion against the Israelis.”
Meanwhile the US naval attaché in Tel Aviv was summoned to Israeli Defense Force Headquarter and there was told that Israel had attacked the Liberty “in error.” “Shortly thereafter,” wrote Bamford, “a total news ban was ordered by the Pentagon.” At 5:29 PM Johnson instructed the Joint Chiefs of Staff to recall the fighter protection “while the Liberty still lay smoldering, sinking, fearful of another attack, without aid, and with its decks covered with the dead, the dying and the wounded.”
By then 32 crewmen were already dead and two more would shortly die; 171 others were wounded; with his navigational equipment shot out and having little power, Commander William McGonagle, USN, worked his ship out to sea. Over sixteen hours later, near Crete, two American destroyers finally arrived. When the ship reached Malta on June 14, “A total news blackout was imposed. Crewmembers were threatened with courts-martial and jail time if they ever breathed a word of the episode to anyone – including family members and even fellow crew members.”
Unless it has been withdrawn, there is graphic proof of these events in a six-part series on U Tube’s “The Loss of the Liberty."
Two years after the attack, when crew members had obtained legal counsel, Israel paid $20,000 each to the wounded and $100,000 each to the families of the dead. The ship commander was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, but President Johnson would not personally present it or allow it to be given at the customary White House ceremony; it was given to McGonagle more or less secretly at the Washington Navy Yard.
Other than the drama and the pain, what is the long-term import of this incident? If I were an Israeli policy planner, as I have been an American policy planner, I would discount all future American protests and warnings. Apparently, that message has not been lost on successive Israeli prime ministers.
A third episode occurred later: Jonathan Pollard is an American of Jewish faith who was employed by Israeli intelligence, as the Government of Israel acknowledge on May 11, 1998, to steal and pass documents to it. When he learned that he was about to be arrested by the FBI, he fled to the Israeli embassy. He was never tried but entered a plea bargain under which he was imprisoned.
Allegedly, for the whole story has never been completely revealed, the documents he passed to Israel contained information on American agents operating in the Soviet Union and the means by which America could track Soviet submarines carrying missiles aimed at the United States. Israel then allegedly traded that information to the Soviet Union in return for special consideration for Jews. As a result, the CIA “assets” disappeared, presumably being rounded up and shot, and the Russians were able to reorganize their submarine fleet. The result thus was, in effect, a replay of the better known espionage of Kim Philby. Indeed, what the Israelis did with Pollard’s thefts was probably more damaging to American security than what Philby had done. Israel and American Zionist groups have since been trying to get him freed.
Israelis obviously believe themselves justified in their acts. Those who support them act as though Israel should not be treated as a state and judged by the laws and customs by which independent states judge one another. Today, however, there is a significant and growing number, Israelis, Jews resident in other countries and non-Jews, who question at least the form of their actions. They should rightly – without charges of anti-semitism – ask what would have been the American reaction to any of the three events I have mentioned had the attackers been of some other nationality? Had Egyptian aircraft or ships attacked the Liberty, the American military aircraft on the way to it from the two carriers were under orders to attack them. And certainly, had Pollard been a Muslim, particularly one with a beard, would he have been treated so lightly?
What is important, however, is less reaction to these events than their presumed effect on the Israeli government: if the United States government did not react to attack on its installations and even on his Naval ships, in which numbers of serving, uniformed officers and men on official duty were wounded or killed, and does not protest damaging, lethal and potentially warlike espionage by Israel, why should Israel pay any attention to admonition over lesser issues?
I think we are hearing the answer today.
In conclusion, by treating Israel as a non-state, indeed above the laws and customs that govern international conduct -- a sort of inverse anti-Semitism -- American politicians are, I think it is fair to say, complicit in Israeli actions. Treating Israel as though it were not required to pay “decent respect to the opinions of mankind.,” American governments, with the active connivance of the Israeli government and the Zionist lobby, have perhaps set Israel up for a great fall.
William R. Polk
William R. Polk
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