Image Credit: Ramachandra Babu/©Gulf News

The slaughter of 9 civilians from many nationalities on the high seas by Israeli troops should become a tipping point in international opinion.

This week's Mavi Marmara massacre was so outrageous that the most jaded observer of Palestine has to be deeply shocked, and moved to action. The Israelis were acting way out of their jurisdiction and used disgustingly excessive force to seize control of the Turkish ships.

Such events have been turning points in the past, and have shifted world opinion to great political effect: In 1960 in Sharpeville in South Africa, police opened fire on black protesters, killing 69 people. The brutality of the event created a storm of international protest, which eventually led to apartheid South Africa being isolated by the international community, giving vital support to those calling for a democratic South Africa.

Decades earlier, in 1919, General Dyer ordered his troops to fire on over 10,000 peaceful Indian protesters in the Jallianwala Bagh gardens in Amritsar, massacring over 1,000 unarmed civilians. His actions were approved by the Hunter Commission, and Dyer showed no repentance at all.

But the combination of the scale of the massacre, and the moral blindness of the official whitewash eventually changed British public opinion as the true horrors of the Amritsar massacre became too much for the public to stomach, giving important support to India's freedom movement led by Mahatma Gandhi.

No more

Over the years there have been many massacres of Palestinians, often running into hundreds of dead. The miserable roll call of hundreds killed runs from Deir Yassin through Sabra and Shatilla, to Jenin and most recently, in January 2009, in Gaza. But the 9 killed on the Mavi Marmara have the potential to bring about a greater change than their numbers might indicate.

Politicians and commentators around the world, such as those in the United Nations and the BBC, and in many online groups, are building an awareness that the Mavi Marmara massacre should be a global political turning point. The sheer arrogance of the casual Israeli slaughtering of non-combatant civilians, many of whom were not Palestinians, makes the Mavi Marmara incident more powerful as an international political trigger.

The legal position is also becoming clearer. The Israeli troops attacked the ships in international waters, and their acts are the same as the pirates operating off the coast of Somalia. They stormed the ships with violence, took control and imprisoned the crew and anyone else, and stole the vessels and their contents. This piracy by Israel is state-sponsored terrorism, and is an act of war.

The ships were flying the Turkish flag, and when one state chooses to attack another's vessels in international waters, it is considered an act that can be described as an act of war. Imagine America's reaction if a US-flagged ship heading for US sovereign territory in Guantanamo, Cuba, was attacked by Cuban forces, killing US citizens. It is extremely unlikely that the first reaction from the White House would be a call for an investigation, and far more likely that the Special Forces would be unleashed within hours.

What Israel may have overlooked is that Turkey is a member of Nato and any attack on a Nato member state is an attack on all member states. Turkey has the right to describe this attack as an act of war, and it then has the right to invoke Nato's Article Five, which defines an attack on one as being an attack on all.

Former US president George W. Bush invoked Article Five after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York's World Trade Centre and the Pentagon. The alliance (including Turkey) accepted the call and supported Nato action against Al Qaida. The Nato general secretariat met after the Mavi Marmara attack and has started its process of investigation.

More than words

It is unlikely that Turkey will declare war on Israel, but the international reaction to the Mavi Marmara massacre has to be more than mere words. The United Nations and many other bodies have called for a full investigation, but the experience of the Goldstone investigation is not encouraging: Israel was found to have used illegal weapons in its invasion of Gaza, and killed hundreds of people without any justification. But the Goldstone Report is simply gathering dust, as it is shunted from chamber to chamber in foreign ministries and the United Nations.

The Mavi Marmara massacre should not be forgotten, nor should it be bogged down in years-long investigations. Israel's killings should trigger a renewed sense of moral outrage, because Israel thinks it can act with impunity. The world's fury needs to be focused into political action that will hurt Israel. Israel has to be made to realise that the world cannot tolerate its use of violence and murder as a weapon, and that it cannot continue on this path with impunity.

The political lessons of the incidents in Amritsar and Sharpeville are important examples of how public opinion will not tolerate violence and oppression. Today, India and South Africa are democratic and peaceful. This should give the Palestinians hope, despite the continued occupation and cruel blockade of Gaza.