May ended on a tragic and dramatic note that could scarcely have been foreseen. A self-styled "Gaza Freedom Flotilla" comprising six ships in all, sponsored by the Turkish organization for Human Rights, Liberties, and Humanitarian Relief (IHH), was making for Gaza from Turkey. The IHH, a radical Islamic organization, was proscribed by Israel in 2008 for allegedly serving as a major component in Hamas’s global fund-raising machine.
Early this morning, as the six ships were approaching Gaza, though still in international waters, the Israeli Navy intercepted them, reminded them of the naval blockade that Israel has imposed on the strip, and ordered them to stop or make for a port in Israel where their cargo would be examined and transferred to Gaza.
When they refused to stop, Israeli commandos stormed the leading ship. On boarding , the commandos encountered fierce resistance from activists armed with knives, bats and metal pipes. According to the Israeli Defence Forces (the IDF), the soldiers started using non-lethal measures to disperse those attacking them, but the activists succeeded in stealing a weapon from one of the soldiers and reportedly opened fire, leading to an escalation in violence. Nine activists are reported killed, while several Israeli commandos were wounded, one seriously.
The fallout from this incident has yet to be assessed, but there has been very nearly universal condemnation of the Israeli action. The EU has called for an investigation. Turkey has summoned the Israeli ambassador to give an explanation. Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who was due to visit Washington this coming week at the invitation of President Obama, has cancelled his trip.
It all began so differently. May saw the start of the long-awaited and long-postponed proximity talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority – talks at arms length, with US Middle East special envoy, George Mitchell, acting as honest broker and go-between. But as to what occurred in the first meeting on 9 May – if indeed that meeting actually took place – is shrouded in secrecy. So secret, indeed, that some of the media actually denied that anything at all had taken place, and heralded the second round, two weeks later, as the opening of the talks.
Little of substance about the talks has become public knowledge even now, and there were clear signs during the month that this cloak of silence is intentional. At press conferences held after 9 May, the US spokesman for the Department of State, Philip J Crowley, virtually refused to provide any information on the progress of the talks. "I can't tell you where they are in that process," he said, which seemed to suggest that he had been gagged, or had voluntarily agreed to withhold any substantive information.
In fact, if a vow of silence has been taken by all concerned – and if, as appears the case today, 31 May, that the watertight seal is holding – no more favourable augury for some sort of successful outcome could be hoped for. Instead of the two sides issuing statements, or leaks, with their own spins on them, in the hope of achieving some sort of PR advantage, it would seem that something of substance may have been put on the table by one side or the other, and is under serious consideration.
Another possible benefit of this self-imposed silence is that, until this mornng, it provided no obvious or immediate excuse for the usual disruptive tactics, from the Islamist extremists in Gaza and elsewhere, calculated to disrupt any move towards a negotiated peace. Just before the proximity talks started there were reports of Hamas supporters in the West Bank being armed, in anticipation, it was feared, of just such activity. The absence of any news – even direct confirmation that the talks were actually under way – may have been designed to dissuade them from action and win the peace process a reprieve. The Gaza Freedom Flotilla incident, however, may have served the purpose of the Islamist extremists even better. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority President, has condemned it as "a massacre". Old Middle East observers were waiting to see where the disruption would stem from this time. Now we know. The question is whether it will be sufficient to bring them to a full stop.
It was towards the end of May that President Obama invited Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to the United States – a much warmer note to their exchange than when they last met in April, at the height of the diplomatic furore which led to the postponement of the first attempt at proximity talks. Fences seem to have been mended, and a new understanding forged in the fire of the controversy. Netanyahu agreed a series of concessions calculated to appease hurt Palestinian feelings over the building project in Jerusalem that sparked the controversy, and he has assured the President that there would be no provocative action on Israel's part while the negotiations proceeded.
For his part, the President was prepared accept a "gentleman's agreement" that Israel would cease construction in that part of Jerusalem that lies over the "Green Line", without insisting on a firm commitment, which might have had the effect of breaking Netanyahu's rather fragile coalition government.
The meeting is the first casualty of the flotilla incident.
The last week in May also saw the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Review conference. On Friday the 28th the conference adopted a declaration upholding the principles of disarmament and calling for an international conference in 2012 with the aim of establishing a nuclear-weapon-free Middle East. The declaration called on the UN secretary general, the US, Russia and Britain to designate a facilitator to organize the conference in 2012 to be attended by "all" Middle East nations. It called on Israel to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) and to place "all its nuclear facilities under comprehensive safeguards of the International Atomic Energy Agency."
Astonishingly, the resolution failed entirely to mention Iran, which is in longstanding violation of the NPT and UN Security Council Resolutions, and which, in the view of most of the rest of the world, poses the greatest threat of nuclear proliferation in the region. indeed the five permanent members of the Security Council seem on the verge of agreeing to impose a fourth round of sanctions against Iran because of its failure to comply with its obligations under the treaty.
So May ends, and June begins, on an equivocal note. How are the proximity talks faring? Are they yielding sufficiently promising results to enable face-to-face talks to commence soon? Or will they be entirely scuppered, yet again, by the Gaza Freedom Flotilla incident?