As more information starts to emerge about the Gaza flotilla, and in particular the tragic events aboard the Mavi Marmara on the night of 31 May, impartial observers are beginning to suspect that their instant rush to judgment – or rather to condemnation – of Israel was premature, and may finally prove to have been misplaced.
What is the information now coming to light?
In the first place it now transpires that, contrary to the public perception of the flotilla as being crammed to the gunwhales with humanitarian aid, three of the six ships in the convoy actually carried no aid at all. The lead ship Mavi Marmara was one such. Far from being a vessel dedicated to humanitarian assistance, it was filled with nearly 600 people according to Yavuz Dede, deputy director of the Turkish Islamist organisation, Insani Yardim Vakfi (IHH), which organised the trip.
Transcripts, interviews and accounts provided by those on board the Mavi Marmara, including the captain, have revealed that of its passengers approximately 40 were operatives from the Turkish Islamist IHH organization. Ushered on board without any security checks, and armed with knives, axes and other weapons, they set up a control room on the ship, communicated with one another using walkie talkies, and were led by the head of IHH, Bülent Yildirim, who briefed his men two hours before the confrontation.
Following interviews with the passengers and crew of the six ships, as well as based on findings from computers seized from IHH members, Israel's Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center (ITIC) issued a detailed report last week. Concerned and impartial observers will undoubtedly want to verify its conclusions, but the ITIC report is certain to be considered as an important piece of evidence by the committee of inquiry, whose composition has now been agreed by the US and Israel.
Basically, what the report details is a carefully planned operation, conceived and carried out with the full cooperation of the Turkish AKP party, and with the apparent concurrence of the prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Turkish government, and clearly designed to force a confrontation in one way or another with Israel. Firm evidence for this? Perhaps the committee of inquiry will unearth it.
The report indicates that the operation started with the purchase of the Mavi Marmara by the IHH from a major shipping company owned by the Istanbul Municipality, which is run by the ruling AKP party,
A journalist on board the Mavi Marmara, described as having good links with the heads of the Turkish government and IHH head Yildirim, is reported as saying, "The flotilla was organized with the support of the Turkish government, and Prime Minister Erdogan gave the instructions for it to set sail. That was despite the fact that everyone knew it would never reach its destination."
Accounts from the passengers, who totalled some 671 in all, reveal that while most boarded their vessels in Anatolia, having been subjected to a full individual search, the 40 IHH operatives came on board the Mavi Marmara in the port of Istanbul without undergoing any security inspection. As soon as they got on board, they took over the upper deck, set up a situation room for communications, and were handed personal walkie-talkies by Bulent Yildirim.
Svante Cornell, an internationally-respected Swedish security expert, is research director of Stockholm's Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, and editor-in-chief of the Turkey Analysis. Last Monday the journal published Cornell's detailed exploration of Turkey's current policies and future aspirations on the world stage. Writing of how the current Turkish government has used so-called "non-governmental organisations" (NGOs) to finance pro-government Islamic media, Cornell says: "The IHH (Insani Yardım Vakfı), which organized the recent flotilla to Gaza, is an example of how NGOs are used in the foreign policy sphere as well."
"The IHH," he writes, "is known as a dyed-in-the-wool Islamist movement, which has been suspected and investigated repeatedly for alleged involvement in arms shipment to Islamic forces in various conflicts, such as Afghanistan and Bosnia." In his view it is not conceivable that the IHH’s Gaza operation could have been carried out without high-level government sanction.
Assuming this to be the case, it has since become clear that the captain of the Mavi Marmara was not privy to the main purpose of the flotilla that he led. Captain Mehmet Tubal's personal account is now available for the world to see on YouTube. In it he explains how, two hours prior to the commandos' boarding of the ship, he tried to convince dozens of IHH activists not to engage in violent clashes with the IDF, and that he and other members of the Mavi Marmara's staff did all they could to prevent the activists from confronting soldiers, even throwing some of the IHH member's metal pipes and chains overboard.
It appears that Bulent Yildirim gave a formal briefing to the 40 IHH operatives some two hours before the confrontation. According to a senior member of the ship's staff, the IHH activists took control of the Mavi Marmara and dictated the rest of the passengers' movements.
The ship's first officer, Gokkiran Gokhan, told his investigators that he was sent by the ship's captain to look into an unusual commotion near the life-boat section of the Mavi Marmara. Once he got there, Gokhan had noticed that bars and chains had been cut off by IHH activists from the deck using rotary saws, which he claims were no part of the ship's equipment.
Asked whose equipment were they, the first officer said: "I don't know, not the ship's. There is no such equipment on the ship. The deck has rods with hooks for chains, and when I got there the rods had been cut."
Gokhan added that the IHH activists did not allow anyone but members of their group to pass through their section of the ship.
Finally, some information that emerged from the inspection of the flotilla's cargo, once the ships had been escorted to the Israel port of Ashdod. A first surprise was, of course, that neither the Mavi Marmara nor two other of the six vessels carried any aid at all. Of the six ships that formed the flotilla, only three contained humanitarian aid: the Gaza, the Sofi and the Defney.
But it was the state of some of the items and equipment that caused something of a shock. Reports indicate that they were not packaged or stacked on the ship in a structured way, as might have been expected from a well-organized humanitarian aid cargo. Individual items had simply been thrown on to a pile on the ships – among them, it is claimed, shoes so worn that they had holes in their soles. As a result many of the items at the bottom of the piles were damaged from the weight of goods piled above them.
What does all this new information suggest?
That under the cloak of providing humanitarian aid to Gaza, an operation to confront Israel, with violence as a possibility – if not actively an intention – was planned with the connivance of the ruling AKP party and possibly of the Turkish prime minister. It was fronted by the IHH, a compliant Islamist non-governmental organisation. A flotilla of six ships was packed with over 600 international supporters, masking the infiltration on board the leading vessel of 40 armed and dangerous activists. A rag-bag collection of goods, equipment and building materials was flung higgledy-piggledy into three of the vessels to give credence to the humanitarian intention of the operation. At sea, the militants took over control of the ship from the captain, who had been kept in the dark about the real intention behind the enterprise.
Israel's botched military intervention, and the consequent death of nine of the militants, provided prime minister Erdogan with a political and diplomatic bonus he could scarcely have hoped for. He was not slow to exploit it, condemning Israel for committing a "massacre", while the world remained unaware of his own alleged involvement, and that of his AKP party, in the plot to foment a confrontation from its very beginning.
Cynical and sinister? If convincing evidence to justify the information that is coming forward is unearthed by the committee of inquiry, or from other sources, the epithets would seem more than justified.