At 4 am Eastern Mediterranean time on May 31, elite Israeli commandos rappelled from helicopters onto the deck of the Turkish-registered ship Mavi Marmara, part of an international “Freedom Flotilla” that had met in Cyprus and then set sail to deliver humanitarian relief supplies to the besieged Gaza Strip. The Mavi Marmara, the largest of the relief vessels, was carrying some 600 activists, mainly Turks but also others of diverse nationalities. The commandos fired live ammunition at some of the passengers, who Israel claims were lightly armed with metal rods or knives, and may have resisted the raid. Some reports say that other ships were also boarded and/or fired upon. The lowest reported death toll among the activists is nine, and the lowest number of wounded is 34.
The details are unclear, because Israel took custody of the entire flotilla and everyone on board, dragging the ships to the port of Ashdod, where the wounded are being treated and everyone else “processed” at a detention center prepared for the purpose. Communications with all the aid vessels were cut shortly after the raid, and journalists have strictly limited access to the Ashdod facility, which is located in the section of the port belonging to the Israeli navy. The news blackout has been near total, but official Israeli sources have made it known that those of the activists who are unhurt will be deported, except a handful who refused to sign deportation orders and will be jailed. Seven hundred activists in total were aboard the flotilla.
Reaction to the raid, from Turkey to the European Union to the UN, has been swift and (almost) universally condemnatory. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called it an act of “state terrorism.” Turkey currently sits on the UN Security Council, which convened an emergency meeting. That meeting went into closed session as night fell on May 31. Meanwhile, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri dubbed the raid a “crazy move.” EU countries have summoned Israeli ambassadors to demand an explanation. “No one in the world will believe the lies and excuses which the government and army spokesmen come up with,” said Uri Avnery, a former member of the Israeli Knesset and leader of the Gush Shalom peace group in Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu canceled a visit to Washington scheduled for June 1 — perhaps in tacit agreement with Avnery, though it seems at least possible that President Barack Obama did not wish to be seen “standing with Israel” on this occasion. Publicly, in any case, the White House remains the odd man out, saying only that it “regrets the loss of life” and is “working to understand the circumstances of the tragedy.”
Much is unknown for certain about the commando operation, but it is nonetheless a moment of clarity in the ongoing drama surrounding Israel’s 43-year occupation of Palestinian lands and its ten-year siege of Gaza, which has been tightened to a stranglehold since the Islamist party Hamas won the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections. Once again, Israel has made the asymmetry of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict crystal clear. With this raid upon a peaceful ship on the high seas, Israel has made clear its disdain for international law — and its contempt for the notion that it will be held accountable for its violations. Israel will persist in this behavior until someone, and that someone is the United States, ends its impunity.
The “Freedom Flotilla” was a convoy of six ships, three bearing passengers and three cargo, organized by the Free Gaza Movement, a coalition of Palestine solidarity activists from Europe, North America, the Middle East and elsewhere. Two additional boats are being held in reserve in Cyprus. The Free Gaza Movement grew out of the first effort to bring aid by sea, in August 2008, when what organizer Huwaida Arraf called “two humble boats” arrived in the coastal strip with a shipment of hearing aids for Gazans deafened by the sonic booms of Israeli warplanes. Subsequent convoys have delivered other goods, despite attempts by the Israeli navy to deter them. In the summer of 2009, Israel interdicted an aid vessel and diverted it to Ashdod.
The activists are motivated by the desire to “break the siege of Gaza” and “raise international awareness” of Gazans’ plight, according the movement’s website. In one of eight “points of unity” on the site, the group members pledge: “We agree to adhere to the principles of non-violence and non-violent resistance in word and deed at all times.” These tactics, expressing activists’ frustration with the official international community’s inaction on Palestine and aiming to embarrass Israel in the global media, are in line with the peaceful campaigns of Palestinians and Israelis to stop construction of Israel’s wall in the West Bank. They also resemble the goals of the International Solidarity Movement, a group founded by Arraf and her husband Adam Shapiro that housed internationals with Palestinians in the West Bank (and, previously, Gaza) as witnesses to everyday excesses of occupation.
Arraf, a Palestinian-American, was aboard a smaller ship of the “Freedom Flotilla,” along with as many as 12 other US citizens, possibly including an ex-ambassador and also Code Pink activist Ann Wright, a retired Army colonel. Three German members of Parliament embarked on the boats, as well as nationals of Britain, Ireland, Greece, Canada, Belgium, Sweden, Australia and Israel, perhaps among other countries. The precise passenger lists of the seized boats are unknown, due to logistical confusion in port in Cyprus. According to Shapiro, Holocaust survivor Hedy Epstein, who was scheduled to travel to Gaza, remained in Cyprus, as did the Irish Nobel laureate Mairead Corrigan. Among the passengers who did depart is Hanan Zu‘bi, a Palestinian citizen of Israel and member of Knesset. Thus far, the blackout has covered up her whereabouts as well.
On board the Mavi Marmara were hundreds of Turks affiliated with the Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief (known by its Turkish acronym, IHH), an Islamist organization whose relationship with Turkey’s “soft Islamist” ruling party, the AKP, is fraught. Close to the AKP’s more overtly Islamist precursor parties, which were banned by the Turkish courts, the IHH views the AKP as defectors who are insufficiently vocal in their engagement with “Islamic” issues, notably Palestine. The government did nothing to stop the IHH from departing for Cyprus, despite warnings from its nominal ally Israel, for fear that its own “Islamic” credentials might be further questioned. Early reports say that six Turks are among the dead, meaning that this incident will reverberate loudly in Turkish politics.
Spin doctors in Israel have been working fast and furious to mold the metanarrative of what happened aboard the Mavi Marmara. The American mainstream media has mostly concentrated on Israeli allegations that some of the activists were carrying weapons and thus posed a threat to the lives of the highly trained Israel Defense Forces (IDF) commandos. Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman told European diplomats that the ship’s passengers were “terrorist supporters who fired at IDF soldiers as soon as the latter boarded the ships.” An IDF-distributed video, shot from a helicopter, shows what appears to be a melee on deck and says the activists tried to “kidnap” a soldier. The goal is to spread the story that the commandos acted in self-defense. To this tale, Adam Shapiro replies, “Our understanding is that Israeli soldiers fired first.” In Ashdod, the Associated Press briefly glimpsed one American passenger, who blurted out, “I’m not violent. What I can tell you is that there are bruises all over my body. They won’t let me show them to you,” before being hustled away.
Again, minus the carefully impounded testimony of the activists themselves, it is difficult to know what exactly precipitated the shooting. It is certainly clear that the raid itself was no panicking naval captain’s improvisation, but was approved by the Israeli security cabinet under the imprimatur of Defense Minister Ehud Barak. According to the IDF’s official statement, “This IDF naval operation was carried out under orders from the political leadership to halt the flotilla from reaching the Gaza Strip and breaching the naval blockade.”
The dispute over who started the on-board combat misses the point, however. From a legal point of view, the Israeli operation was completely out of bounds and Israel is the aggressor. The raid occurred in international waters, meaning that Israel violated the convoy’s right of free navigation. Richard Falk, an international legal scholar and the UN Special Rapporteur for the Occupied Palestinian Territories, says that the raid is “clearly a criminal act, being on the high seas.” Falk explains that storming a peaceful boat is akin to a home invasion, with the aggravating circumstance that the invaded space in this case was packed with goods intended to alleviate human suffering. “The people on these boats would have some right of self-defense,” Falk continues, as they were the ones who were under unprovoked attack. Israel’s claim of self-defense is preposterous, no matter who threw the first punch, because Israel’s self is not located at sea.
Before the convoy sailed, Israeli passenger Dror Feiler speculated that if the Israeli navy tried to stop the ships by force, “they’ll be the new pirates of the Mediterranean.” The Free Gaza Movement has echoed this charge, as has the Financial Times in its May 31 editorial denouncing “this brazen act of piracy.” This particular accusation will not stick, for the simple reason that by maritime law a state cannot commit piracy, but again it is important not to get tangled up in words. Israel has no legal leg to stand on, because it mounted a military assault upon a civilian boat (which is not, by any conceivable law, barred from carrying knives and metal rods) in waters not its own.
In part because of the murky details, early commentary on the commando raid has focused on the atmospherics. Everyone except the Israeli state and its kneejerk defenders, like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), believes that Israel has done itself a great disservice, at least in public relations terms. Writing in the May 31 edition of Ha’aretz, columnist Bradley Burston lamented that Israel’s foes have switched the spotlight onto the blockade of Gaza, Hamas or no Hamas. Burston continued: “We are no longer defending Israel. We are now defending the siege. The siege itself is becoming Israel’s Vietnam.” On the Huffington Post website, M. J. Rosenberg, formerly of the liberal Israel Policy Forum, quoted blogger Moshe Yaroni saying that the incident is “Israel’s Kent State.”
The operation comes on the heels of the kerfuffle caused by a lengthy essay by Peter Beinart titled, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,” which appears in the June 10 issue of the New York Review of Books. Beinart is the former editor of the pro-Israel magazine The New Republic, and a slowly recovering liberal hawk who backed the 2003 invasion of Iraq (for which he has repented) and authored A Fighting Faith (2004), a book calling for a revival of Cold War bellicosity in liberal foreign policy thinking. His essay lambasts the likes of AIPAC for maintaining its “Israel, right or wrong” stance amidst the rise of blatantly illiberal political forces in Israel and the continuation of the settlement project. Beinart is worried that the pro-Israel reflex will corrode Israel’s support base among American Jewry. “For several decades, the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door,” he writes, “and now, to their horror, they are finding that many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead.” The editors of Foreign Policy were so struck by the essay that they commissioned eight responses.
The hand wringing among Israel’s backers in the US will intensify as the crisis unfolds. The chorus will rise that Israel has overreacted or miscalculated; much blame will be laid at the door of Netanyahu, who is an easy target because of his brusque demeanor and pointed defiance of the Obama White House on settlement construction. Netanyahu, it will be said, has made a “crazy move” and placed the all-important US-Israeli “special relationship” in jeopardy.
It is more plausible that the Netanyahu government calculated this maneuver precisely, exploiting the Free Gaza Movement’s gift of Memorial Day timing, when the Obama administration would be on vacation and hence readily able to make do with a grunt of “regret.” For decades, Israel has tried the patience of the official international community with its military adventures, but whenever that patience has run out, Washington has stepped in to spare Israel the consequences. The glaring example at present, the commando raid excepted, is the winter 2008-2009 assault on Gaza, when Israel bombarded the tiny strip for over a month, killing some 1,300 Palestinians, and claiming as justification the ineffectual rocket fire of Gazan militants. The Obama administration stymied any Security Council consideration of the UN report on that offensive, by retired South African jurist Richard Goldstone, protecting Israel from investigations of possible war crimes. Compared to the carnage in Gaza itself, the casualties among the Free Gaza Movement are few. Israel is counting on the US, once again, to deflect the international furor over its actions and enshrine the principle that Israel can do whatever it wants, legal or not, to the Palestinians and those who try to help them.
Perhaps, nonetheless, Israel did miscalculate. Free Gaza Movement members not on the boats are stunned by Israel’s violence, and mournful at the losses in their ranks, but heartened by the alacrity and sharp tone of world reaction to the raid. The next step for the activists, says Shapiro, will be to decide when and where to sail with the two aid vessels still in Cyprus. Gael Murphy of Code Pink predicts that Palestine solidarity networks will be “moved to action” more concerted and determined than before.
In Israel-Palestine, the burning question is the fate of Sheikh Ra’id Salah, a resident of Umm al-Fahm and the leader of the Islamist Movement in Israel. Salah was a passenger in the “Freedom Flotilla,” and Arab media reports have said that he was injured or even killed by the commandos. Many observers believe that if Salah was hurt there will be massive demonstrations by Palestinians both inside and outside Israel, perhaps sparking confrontations and giving Israel the opportunity to reassert control over the crisis and the coverage of the conflict in general.
In Turkey, the government cannot ignore popular protests over the attack on the Mavi Marmara, the largest of which have taken on a religious dimension. On May 31 crowds of Islamists in Istanbul blocked the Trans-European Motorway linking the European and Asian continents, upstaging the faster-moving, but smaller gatherings of leftists. Both the IHH involvement in the convoy and Erdogan’s impassioned denunciation of the raid have painted the AKP into a corner. They must show the Turkish public that they will stand up to Israel and its US patron in the diplomatic arena, and also that they will not abandon the mission of relief for Gaza. The AKP government has canceled three joint Turkish-Israeli military exercises, recalled its ambassador from Tel Aviv and repatriated the national youth soccer team from Israel. Erdogan promised to order a Turkish naval escort for the next flotilla, and with elections not far off in 2011, he may be hard pressed to renege. At the same time, the AKP cannot be completely comfortable in the role in which it has been cast, which increasingly requires it to face down not only the state-secularist establishment in Turkey but also the country’s mightiest friends in Washington. The Obama administration is already irked by Ankara’s brokering, with Brazil, of a nuclear deal with Tehran.
The destination of the boats, Gaza, stands at risk of being overshadowed by the deadly scuffles off its coast. It is there, however, that the situation is most dire. The “Freedom Flotilla” was carrying, among other items, cement for the reconstruction of the 6,400 Palestinian homes that were razed or damaged in the winter of 2008-2009. The World Health Organization counts some 3,500 families as displaced by the bombing, more than a year later. The Israeli assault exacerbated the effects of the years-long siege, which has sent the already impoverished strip into downward spirals of human misery. In May 2008, the WHO estimates, 70 percent of families were living on less than $1 a day; 10.2 percent of Gazans were chronically malnourished; and 67 percent of young people were jobless. These numbers have certainly worsened since the data was collected, due to the bombing, and to subsequent Israeli and Egyptian crackdowns on the smuggling of goods through tunnels underneath the Gazan-Egyptian border.
What of the response of Barack Obama? The path of least resistance, sure to be greased by Congress, would be to instruct his UN envoy to spurn Turkish and other demands for Israeli accountability. With the assistance of the American media, it may not be so difficult for the White House to pretend that this naked display of unlawful violence was just a “tragedy” occurring in the heat of the moment. The media, after all, is bleating insipidly about the effects this episode may have on the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process.” Obama is likely to face little domestic pressure to put a stop to Israeli impunity and back a full and impartial investigation, though UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called for one. And having just slapped down the Turkish-Brazilian deal with Iran, Obama may be ready to do all his damage to US-Turkish ties at once. It may be harder to avoid a conversation about lifting the indefensible blockade of Gaza, which Assistant Secretary-General Oscar Fernandez-Taranco described as “counterproductive and unacceptable” before the Security Council on May 31. One thing is certain: If Obama chooses the former course and shields Israel from international scrutiny, no speech, however silver-tongued, will persuade the world that his Middle East policy is different from his predecessor’s.