Wednesday, 30 June 2010

June reviewed

The flotilla and its aftermath

June 2010 was the month of the Gaza flotilla, an event whose aftermath is far from played out. The incident itself, which hit the world’s headlines with virtually no warning, occurred in the early hours of the last day of May. Who could have predicted that on the last day of June an Israeli commission of enquiry, including two independent, internationally acclaimed, observers would already have assembled in Jerusalem and be hard at work creating guidelines and a schedule for hearing witnesses?

The flotilla incident, it is becoming increasingly clear, was a carefully planned operation calculated to confront and confound Israel on the international stage. Cloaked under the pretext of delivering humanitarian aid to the people of Gaza, and fronted by over 600 well-meaning individuals – some prominent in humanitarian causes – the real intention of the organisers, as is emerging from subsequent reports and statements, was to precipitate a violent encounter with the Israeli military, either on the open seas or at the port of Gaza.

To this end, some 40 armed activists were ushered aboard the leading ship of the flotilla – the Mavi Marmara – at a different embarkation point from the rest of the passengers, and without any of the security checks to which they were subject. They were led by the head of the Turkish Islamist body known as the IHH, an organisation with a long track record of gun-running and violence in support of Islamist causes world-wide. The Mavi Marmara, it should be noted, contained no humanitarian aid of any description. Nor did two of the other five ships that made up the flotilla.

Once the 40-strong activist team was aboard, they took over the upper deck, set up a situation room for communications, and were handed personal walkie-talkies by their leader, IHH chief Bulent Yildirim. Subsequently Captain Mehmet Tubal, unaware of the darker purposes behind those who had chartered the flotilla in the name of humanitarian relief, tried to convince dozens of IHH activists not to engage in violent clashes with the IDF. The ship's first officer, Gokkiran Gokhan, discovered that bars and chains had been cut off by IHH activists from the deck using rotary saws, which he insists were no part of the ship's equipment, and therefore must have been brought aboard. The captain 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.

Two hours before the flotilla was challenged by the Israeli military, Yildrim gave his men a briefing, and then virtually took over control of the ship from the unsuspecting captain.

The IHH is a Turkish non-governmental organisation, supported and funded by the ruling AKP party. From the purchase of the Mavi Marmara in the first place, to the eventual order to the flotilla to set sail, testimony has pointed to the involvement of the AKP and thus, it would appear, of the Turkish government in the whole cynical enterprise.

Once news broke of the encounter between the Israeli commandos and the IHH activists, with the consequent death of nine of them, Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been outspoken in condemning Israel’s action and unwavering in his demand for both an apology from Israel and an international committee of inquiry – though it is far from clear that Turkey would emerge from a genuinely impartial investigation with clean hands. Other voices that have called for an international inquiry include UN Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon, the EU and the Quartet.

Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, still smarting from the deeply flawed Goldstone Inquiry into Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, was adamant that Israel was pefectly capable of setting up an impartial and credible commission of inquiry. Responding to a generally voiced demand for an international dimension, two well-respected individuals with international reputations were invited – and agreed – to act as observers: Lord Trimble the Northern Ireland Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and Canada’s former Judge Advocate General, Ken Watkin.

The commission, headed by retired Supreme Court justice Jacob Turkel, was remitted to investigate Israel’s naval raid on the Gaza flotilla, including the deaths of nine activists, and whether it adhered to international law. The commission would also examine the security-related reasons for Israel’s imposition of a naval blockade on the Gaza Strip, and the conduct of Turkey and the organisers of the flotilla. Most of the hearings, it has been announced, will be open to the public and the media. Some that might affect Israel’s security will be held behind closed doors.

Retired Justice Turkel, however, has decided that to do what is required of it effectively, his commission will need to be larger and have more teeth. He has asked the government for the full investigative powers of a state commission of enquiry, and for the committee to be expanded from three members to five, not including the two foreign observers. The Prime Minister’s office has indicated that Turkel’s requirements will probably be met, with the sole proviso that the commission will not be allowed to question individual soldiers. The IDF is undertaking its own investigation headed by Major-General (res) Giora Eiland, who will then present his findings to the commission. The IDF investigation is expected to be concluded by 4 July; the commission plans its first session on 11 July.

Whether Israel’s commission will satisfy the calls for a totally international investigation only time will tell; what it has not done is mitigate the aggressive proactive stance adopted by Turkey’s PM. Erdogan clearly sees in the whole affair a golden opportunity to wrest the leadership of the Islamist world, at least in the popularity stakes, from Iran’s President Ahmadinejad, who has other pressing matters – both external and internal – currently engaging his attention (the former concerned with a new round of UN-authorised sanctions; the latter with an ever-stronger opposition challenging the validity of his election as President a year ago).

So on Sunday (27 June), reports emerged that Turkey had not allowed a plane carrying Israeli military officers, en route to a tour of memorial sites in Auschwitz in Poland, to fly over Turkish airspace. In addition, having withdrawn its ambassador, Turkey continues to insist that he will not return, and that military and trade ties will be curtailed, unless Israel apologizes for the raid.

With the world’s attention focused on the Gaza blockade in general, Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu came under intense pressure to ease its terms. In agreeing a new formula, brokered by the Quartet’s Middle East envoy, Tony Blair, Netanyahu has aroused an equally heated debate within Israel. Every concession to Hamas, the argument runs, represents a strengthening of their position in their continuing struggle for power within the Palestinian camp and against any accommodation with Israel.

Hamas are adept at exploiting the strengths of their position, among them the mere fact of Israel’s land and sea blockade – or rather its claimed effects on the living standards of the Gazan population – and that, four years after his capture, the Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, remains in their hands.

Negotiations for Shalit’s release have been proceeding through indirect channels, and latterly through a German mediator, but have so far failed to gell. Two main issues remain to be resolved: Israel refuses to release several dozen “heavy” prisoners – those who led Hamas terrorist networks or were responsible for terrorist attacks – and will not allow those with homes in the West Bank to return, for fear they will establish a terrorist network there as a base from which to attack Israel and undermine the Palestinian Authority.

These arguments carry no weight with Gilad Shalit’s father, Noam, nor a large and vociferous section of the Israeli public. For on the fourth anniversary of Gilad’s capture, Friday 25 June, Noam set out on a 12-day protest march to the Prime Minister’s residence in Jerusalem to demand that Israel accede to what Hamas requires in order to release his son. By Monday 28 June the number of marchers had swollen to 10,000.

Meanwhile, the proximity talks proceed quietly on their way. US Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, returns to Israel on 1 July to oversee the fifth round – albeit somewhat frustrated, reports have it, at some foot-dragging by Israel on core issues. In a statement on 27 June, however, the PM’s office said that “Israel is conducting the proximity talks very thoroughly, on a variety of issues, in order to move as quickly as possible to direct talks.”

That sounds positive enough to engender just a little hope.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Gaza: quiet success for Tony Blair

There is, of course, more than one "Middle East envoy" at work on the problems of Israel-Palestine. George Mitchell, appointed by President Obama, heads the effort to bring Israel and Palestine to the negotiating table, and has just initiated the fourth round of so-called "proximity talks", still on track despite the débacle of the Gaza freedom flotilla episode. Then there's Tony Blair.

It’s two-and-a half years since Tony Blair took up the role of envoy to the Middle East on behalf of “the Quartet” – the United Nations, the European Union, the United States and Russia. On the day he was officially confirmed in post – the 27th of June 2007, the very day he resigned as UK Prime Minister – the White House announced that both Israel and the Palestinians had signed up to the appointment.

Other voices – not all of them from the Arab world – expressed varying degrees of scepticism about Tony Blair's credibility as an impartial peacemaker, given the controversy already raging about Britain's key role in the invasion of Iraq.

But from the moment he took up the post Blair has stressed the need to create conditions that would allow the launch of credible negotiations. He seems to be pursuing a twin track towards this objective: on the one hand striving for a more unified position within Palestinian politics, and on the other building a viable future Palestinian state through encouragement of the West Bank economy.

And indeed, over the past two years the West Bank’s economy has flourished. 2009 saw a growth rate of 6.8% according to the World Bank, some 6000 new jobs have been created, trade with Israel is up by more than 80% and agricultural exports by over 200%. But the World Bank, while recognising the considerable advances, is far from endorsing the idea that an economic boom is under way. Blair has been beavering away, largely behind the scenes, encouraging development himself not only in the larger picture, but also in the detail of individual projects – such as the sewage system in Gaza, tourism in Bethlehem, improving the mobile phone system in the West Bank.

All this, as Blair told David Frost in an interview on Al-Jazeera TV, was done in the interests of creating a credible atmosphere in which to launch renewed peace negotiations – an enterprise that finally resulted in a positive outcome.

So what part has Tony Blair been playing in this week's developments on the Gaza scene?

Middle East observers will have noted that in the days immediately following the Mavi Marmara incident, Tony Blair had no less than three meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. Then, on Monday 14 June, he flew to Luxembourg to brief EU foreign ministers. Following that session, he told the Press that he hoped the blockade would “be eased within days.”

The key, Blair said, “is to shift from a list of goods that are permitted into Gaza to a list of goods that are prohibited from entering, such as weapons and combat material, so that anything that is not on the list of prohibited items is allowed to enter. The prohibition on the entry of weapons and combat material should of course remain in place, and Israel is justified in seeking to check items that go into Gaza to ensure that such items are kept out.”

Blair said that after holding intensive talks with Netanyahu, he believed that “Israel has agreed in principle to move to such a list.”

And so it has proved to be, as PM Netanhayu has himself acknowledged.

Without making a great song and dance about it, Tony Blair has been going about the business of fostering goodwill and helping create an atmosphere in which peaceful intentions, if they exist, can be pursued. A high-ranking official of the Israeli foreign ministry has said: "When in another 100 years they write a book about the history of the Middle East, Blair's name will proudly appear in it."

Friday, 18 June 2010

Proximity talks survive

"What a marvellous piece of luck," one diplomatic official is reported to have said, "that the Israel-Palestinian negotiations started off as indirect talks. If they'd been face-to-face, they'd have been over straight after the Gaza flotilla incident."

He is not wrong. It is difficult to envisage Mahmoud Abbas, the PA president, carrying on as if nothing had happened, given the cacophany of condemnation that Israel faced after the storming of the Mavi Marmara, and the subsequent death of nine activists.

But, stormy though the diplomatic weather has undoubtedly been over the past fortnight, George Mitchell, President Obama's special Middle East envoy, arrived back in the region on Wednesday night, ready, willing and eager to start the fourth round of proximity talks. He, at least, seemed prepared to carry on where he had left off. His intention, he announced, was to "pursue the discussions now under way, which we hope will lead to direct negotiation, which in turn will lead to a comprehensive agreement." So nothing fundamental, in his view, has changed.

His first meeting was with Israeli Defense Minister, Ehud Barak, yesterday. He is scheduled to meet Palestinian officials today, Friday, in Ramallah. On Saturday, a White House representative said, Mitchell will travel to Egypt. Among the items for discussion, it is reported, will be a bid to encourage the country to establish conditions for the permanent opening of the Rafah crossing.

Mitchell's discussions with Mahmoud Abbas will certainly refer back to those the PA President had with President Obama in Washington DC on 9 June. During Abbas's visit, Obama pledged 400 million US dollars in new aid for the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Everyone connected with the proximity talks so far has religiously observed a remarkably effective vow of silence. Virtually nothing of what has so far passed in the indirect negotiations has emerged into the light of day. If George Mitchell deserves praise for anything in this latest diplomatic effort, it is for managing to keep so tight a lid on the process. This surely also played a part in allowing the talks to be resumed after an international incident that would surely have derailed any such effort in the past.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Flotilla fallout

A not-unexpected rush of "me-too" merchants is one immediate fallout from the so-called "Gaza Freedom Flotilla" episode.

Early on the scene was maverick British politician George Galloway. In a hastily organised campaign held in central London on 5 June, he boldly announced that on the day after Ramadan – namely 10 September – a pincer movement would close in on Gaza. On the one hand a vast new flotilla would set sail, from a port which he did not specify, and circle the Mediterranean before attempting to break the sea blockade of Gaza (the website made the somewhat difficult-to-believe claim that it would consist of no less than 60 ships). Simultaneously, Galloway informed the crowd, a huge land convoy of aid would set off from London, travelling through Europe, Turkey, Syria, Jordan and Egypt, and seek to enter Gaza through Egypt's Rafah crossing. These plans, he informed his audience, were conceived and drawn up in Istanbul.

On the day following Galloway's announcement, 6 June, Hojjatoleslam Ali Shirazi, a personal representative of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, announced: "Iran's Revolutionary Guard naval forces are prepared to escort the peace and freedom convoys that carry humanitarian assistance for the defenceless and oppressed people of Gaza with all their strength."

Meanwhile Bülent Yildirim, the head of the IHH (the Turkish non-governmental organisation Insani Yardim Vakfi which organised the first flotilla) has defiantly proclaimed that his organisation would continue to send ships to Gaza, and that family members of the nine Turks killed in the Mavi Marmara affair have asked to join the next IHH flotilla. The IHH has been described as a "dyed-in-the-wool Islamist movement".

Others, too, are eager to jump on the flotilla bandwagon – for example, an association of German Jews, Jewish Voices for a Just Peace. Planning originally to send one ship with humanitarian aid in mid-July to break the Gaza blockade, the organisation is currently reported to be searching for a second vessel, in response to the number of volunteers. According to spokeswoman Edith Lutz: "our preparations have been held back somewhat because we have been inundated with requests to travel." Apparently the first vessel, which could hold up to 14 passengers, was full and a further 40 German Jews were seeking to travel aboard a second ship.

On Tuesday Palestinian businessman Yasser Kashlak, who heads the Free Palestine Movement, announced that a two-vessel convoy was about to sail to Gaza in an effort to break the sea blockade. One of the ships, the Naji el-Ali, was said to carry 25 European activists (including parliament members) and some 50 journalists. It is expected off Israel's coast in the next few days.

Then there is a group of Lebanese women, led by the wife of an imprisoned senior Hezbollah official. Samar Hajj, whose husband Ali Hajj has been in jail for four years in connection with the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, declared that the female activists involved in her venture were “all independent women who believe in breaking the siege on Gaza.” She said that she and the 50 other women – Muslims and Christians alike – who had signed up as passengers on the ship Mariam had no political affiliations. “This has nothing to do with Hezbollah, although it is an honour for us to be supporters of the resistance.”

And yesterday (Wednesday), in Strasbourg, The International Campaign to Lift the Siege on Gaza, which organised the original ill-fated flotilla. held a press conference about the Gaza blockade and Israel's actions in preventing the flotilla from breaching it. Mazen Kahel, their spokesman, announced that the plan is to send a new aid flotilla for Gaza next month.

"We have six boats which are ready to leave Europe. We are hoping to head off in the last half of July. We think the second flotilla will be bigger than the first."

The "Fleet of Freedom 2" is backed by other pro-Palestinian groups including Free Gaza, and Turkish, Greek and Swedish NGOs. The Press conference was supported by members of the European Parliament, led by Richard Howitt, the UK MEP.

It seems as though the Mediterranean will be crowded with flotillas this summer, though one Israeli official is reported as saying: “We don’t know how much of the threats are real and how much are bravado.”

One factor apparently overlooked or discounted by all these enthusiastic potential blockade busters is that Gaza’s port is not large enough to accommodate cargo ships. Even before Israel imposed a naval blockade on Gaza, no cargo ships sailed there. Historically, all goods that entered the Gaza Strip in bulk did so by land.

The head of the Palestinian Federation of Industry in Gaza, Amr Hamad, is reported as saying that the business sector has separately proposed a plan by which, should the shipping lanes be opened, ferry boats would meet the cargo ships close to the shore, and bring the cargo into the port. He said that such a plan was discussed this week with Quartet special envoy Tony Blair, who was in the region.

He stressed that the business community in Gaza at present preferred the goods to head first to Ashdod, so as to maintain a relationship with Israeli customs. The business sector in Gaza, he added, is not ready to break its economic ties with Israel.

The Israeli government is reported to be sceptical about any proposal for an international body, including the EU, to monitor Gaza-bound ships. The naval blockade is intended to prevent the smuggling of weapons into Gaza. The multinational force placed by the UN Security Council along the Lebanese border has not been able to prevent weapons smuggling there, and there is little reason to believe that a multinational agency would be any more successful at sea.

Another fallout from the flotilla episode was to raise the question of whether the time had come to ameliorate the nature of the Gaza blockade as it has operated for the past two years.

On Monday the EU foreign affairs committee discussed the Gaza situation. It concluded that the continued policy of closure is unacceptable and called for an immediate, sustained and unconditional opening of crossings for the flow of humanitarian aid, commercial goods and persons to and from Gaza including goods from the West Bank. "The Council calls for a solution," the relevant paragraph ends, "that addresses Israel’s legitimate security concerns including a complete stop to all violence and arms smuggling into Gaza."

The EU did not suggest how to achieve its very nearly mutually exclusive objectives.

But the issue of easing the restrictions was undoubtedly given new impetus by the flotilla incident. There was a growing sense in Jerusalem that a decision by the government to ease up on what is allowed into Gaza through land crossings would bring about more cooperation by governments in dissuading their citizens from taking part in future attempts to break the blockade.

As a result Israel's security cabinet voted earlier today (Thursday) to ease its land blockade of the Gaza Strip.

"It was agreed to liberalize the system by which civilian goods enter Gaza, and to expand the inflow of materials for civilian projects that are under international supervision," ran an official statement, without specifying any product list. It added that existing security procedures to prevent the inflow of weapons and war materiel would continue.

The announcement appeared to indicate that Israel would allow international organizations, such as the United Nations, to import previously banned building materials, vital to reconstruction following Operation Cast Lead. It made no mention of any lifting of Israel's sea blockade.

Meanwhile, Israel announced on Tuesday that it had reached an agreement with the UN to send tons of aid to Gaza from the flotilla of boats that was diverted by the Israeli navy to the port of Ashdod on 31 May, and has been held at the border because Hamas refused to accept it.

Finally, a major fallout from the flotilla incident has been the number of calls for inquiries that it has generated.

It was on Monday that Israel's PM, Netanyahu, detailed the composition of Israel's committee of inquiry, agreed with the US administration. To be headed by retired Supreme Court judge Jacob Terkel, its members will include Shabtai Rosen, a professor of international law, and Major General (res.) Amos Horev, former president of the Israel Institute of Technology. Two foreign observers will take part in the committee's deliberations – Lord Trimble, a Northern Irish Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and Ken Watkin, a former military judge advocate general from Canada.

To be known as a "public commission" its remit will be to inquire into the events of May 31, 2010, which will include examining the Turkish position and actions taken by the flotilla's organizers, especially the Turkish group IHH, as well as the identity of the participants in the flotilla and their intentions.

Then there is the IDF's own "operational investigation". Except for IDF Chief-of-Staff Lt.-Gen. Gaby Ashkenazi, IDF soldiers will not testify before the commission. The IDF will instead provide the commission with summaries of its own operational investigations, to be chaired by Major-General (ret.) Giora Eiland.

On top of that Israel's State Comptroller, Micha Lindenstrauss, notified the Knesset’s State Control Committee that he intends to investigare the events surrounding the raid. His investigation will focus mainly on the government’s decision-making process, intelligence and public diplomacy.

Calls for international committees of inquiry have come from a variety of sources. UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, originally asked to take part in one such, and following Israel's announcement has reiterated his request. Today (Thursday) a UN spokesman reported that Ban Ki-moon is hoping for a "credible international involvement" in the investigations, to ensure a "timely, credible, impartial and transparent" response. He added that he had not yet received an official refusal by Israel.

On Tuesday Robert Serry, UN special coordinator for the Middle East peace process released a statement which read: “The Secretary-General...has proposed an international panel, one that is under the aegis of a third party seen as impartial...The Secretary-General has taken note of Israel’s announcement and recognizes that a thorough Israeli investigation is important, and could be consistent with the Secretary-General’s own proposals for an international panel – the two combined would fully meet the international community’s expectation for a credible and impartial investigation. The Secretary-General’s proposal is not incompatible with domestic inquiries, in fact, the two approaches are complementary, so his proposal, accordingly, remains on the table.”

The report of the EU foreign affairs committee on Monday states: "The Council believes that an immediate, full and impartial inquiry into these events and the circumstances surrounding them is essential. To command the confidence of the international community this should include credible international participation." Whether Israel's "public commission" satisfies their requirements has yet to be seen.

It is unlikely to satisfy the EU Parliament, which today (Thursday) debates the Gaza flotilla episode, and votes on a resolution which has been put before it. Never was the outcome of a vote less in doubt. It can be foreseen from the very terms of the resolution which, without any "ifs" or "buts", states unequivocally that the Israeli attack on the flotilla was a breach of international law, condemns Israel for its military operation on a Gaza-bound flotilla carrying humanitarian aid, and calls for a prompt international and impartial inquiry into the raid, calling on European countries to raise this demand.

Turkey is not yet a member of the EU – its application to join has been outstanding since 1987 – but Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has been insisting on an international commission to investigate the Israeli commando raid.

“If an international commission is not set up," said Davutoglu in a press conference in Ankara, "and Turkey’s rightful demands are ignored, Turkey has the right to review its relations with Israel.”

News this morning (Thursday) is that Turkey is in the process of doing just that. Turkey has frozen billions of dollars worth of defence deals with Israel, according to Turkish newspaper Zaman, because Israel has refused to apologize for the deaths of the nine Turkish citizens killed aboard the Mavi Marmara. Turkey will refuse to recognize Israel's internal inquiry into the incident, and whether Turkey sends its ambassador back to Israel, according to the newspaper, is dependent on Israel's agreement to send a representative to a United Nations investigatory commission into the raid. No such commission has yet been announced.

“An apology is Israel’s exit if it really wants to normalize relations with Turkey” Zaman quoted a diplomat as saying.

Attack is certainly the best form of defence, but it is far from certain that any genuinely impartial enquiry would leave Turkey without a great deal of egg on its face. Evidence of Turkish government complicity in conceiving, assisting and involving itself in an enterprise designed to challenge Israel's sea blockade of Gaza is mounting. Fronted by a non-governmental organisation – the IHH – and concealing its intentions under the cloak of delivering humanitarian aid, the plan appears to have involved the smuggling on board the lead ship, the Mavi Marmara, which itself carried no humanitarian aid at all, of 40 armed and dangerous thugs who subsequently took over control of the ship from its unsuspecting captain. Accounts and reports now in the public domain will certainly need to be either substantiated or discounted, but the picture from Turkey's point of view, is not a pretty one.

It may yet be a matter of debate as to which party has to apologise to which – Israel to Turkey, or Turkey to Israel.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

The flotilla enterprise – cynical and sinister?

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.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Turkey's Press battles for freedom

Something that is not, perhaps, generally known about Turkey is its vigorous, fearless and forceful news media. Journalism flourishes in Turkey. Almost incredibly, more than 30 newspaper titles appear daily in Istanbul. They range from the xenophobic to the Marxist, the nationalist to the libertarian, not to mention the ethnic dailies that include the established Armenian, Greek and Jewish press as well as the emergent Kurdish-language media.

Given what we know about the current régime, and the fundamentalist direction in which the country has been led by prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, it may not be too surprising to learn that large parts of the media are virtually constantly at daggers drawn with the government. The history of Erdogan's AKP régime is besmirched with a constant succession of protests and complaints against the media, backed by the blocking of access to YouTube and to Google websites, efforts to boycott particular titles, by cancelled accreditations and by one draconian tax fine against Turkey's leading media group.

In 2005, some three years after Erdogan came to power with a massive majority of 363 seats out of a total of 550, the government introduced a series of legislative reforms. Included in the revised penal code was what has since become known as the "notorious" Article 301. This provision categorised as crimes: "the denigration of Turkishness, the Republic, and the foundation and institutions of the State," and prescribed draconian penalties for activities so designated.

Article 301 was perceived both internally and by international observers as a focused attack on freedom of speech in general, and freedom of the Press in particular. It aroused world-wide condemnation and, following continual pressure, in 2008 the Turkish parliament approved a cosmetic reform of the controversial Article. The changes did little to widen freedom of speech.

Last February a comprehensive report on violations of media freedom was submitted to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) in Strasbourg by British MP Andrew McIntosh. In it he warned that Turkey was in violation of Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights in respect of Article 301, on the grounds that it restricts freedom of expression for members of the media. In view of this, the report concluded, the European Court of Human Rights was entitled to impose sanctions on Turkey.

“The Assembly welcomes amendments made to Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code [TCK]," said the report, "but deplores the fact that Turkey has not abolished Article 301. Criminal charges have been brought against many journalists under the slightly revised Article 301, which still violates Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.”

Between April and June 2009, according to the Turkish monitoring organization Bianet, 125 people, 57 of them journalists, were on trial for their opinions. In September 2009 there were more than 70 current outstanding cases of journalists and writers facing criminal investigation or trial in Turkey for their opinions. Of those, 27 individuals faced possible criminal prosecution under Article 301. Meanwhile, only yesterday Hurriyet Daily News reported that journalist İrfan Aktan has been sentenced to a 15-month prison term for “making terrorist propaganda” based on his quoting of members of an outlawed organization in a news story about the country’s Kurdish issue.

Shortly after the PACE report appeared, Prime Minister Erdoğan launched an intemperate attack on newspaper columnists. He accused them of focusing on the negative, even of driving down the Istanbul Stock Exchange. He demanded that newspaper owners fire columnists straying outside the narrow band of his approval.

Anthony Mills, press freedom manager for the Vienna-based International Press Institute, remarked after Erdoğan’s outburst:

“Although this is not the first time the prime minister has criticized the media, the comments he made are extremely worrying. Because what he seems to be suggesting, if I understand correctly, is that newspapers get rid of columnists who overstep boundaries that are defined by him.”

As a result of Erdogan's threat, an online petition was initiated by a group of Turkish newspaper columnists. The petition, which included names of columnists from a range of the best-known and most widely-read of the Turkish media, read:

“We, the undersigned columnists, think that the statement by Prime Minister Erdoğan, saying newspaper bosses must control their columnists, is against the freedom of the press, to which we owe our existence, and generally against the ideal of a ‘democratic Turkey,’ and we protest this statement.”

But the red-blooded gentlemen of the Turkish press were not content to leave the matter there. Turkey's leading newspaper group, which publishes the country's major English paper, the Hurriyet Daily News, decided to present a full, free and frank account of the nation's long struggle for press freedom and the problems the Turkish media are currently facing. And that is exactly what has been appearing every day this week – so far without comment from government circles. One trusts the fearless journal will be allowed to publish the articles in full.

Editor Stefan Martens, along with reporters Özgür Öğret and Mustafa Akyol, have produced a diverse, complex and many-faceted portrait of the state of play between Turkish governments past and present, and the press. As the newspaper itself puts it: "The leitmotif in this long-running media symphony is struggle. It has never been easy. It is not so today. But Turkish journalists are undaunted and still 'pressing for freedom.'"

The series started on Monday with an historical review: "Nearly two centuries of struggle." The Tuesday effort was entitled: "Turkey's own 'McCarthyism'", to be followed yesterday by "Majority rule, unruly reporters." Today the paper presents a piece subtitled: "Drawing up the media battle-lines," and the concluding article, promised for Friday, is to be called: "Democracy when? Freedom for whom?"

One cannot help feeling that as long as a press as feisty as this persists in the country, all hope is not lost of Turkey eventually reasserting its post-War of Independence character – basically non-fundamentalist, if not positively secular.

Whether or not this hope is overly-optimistic, a paragraph that appeared in Hurriyet Daily News three days after the Gaza Freedom Flotilla incident is most unlikely to have been pleasing to Prime Minister Erdogan, or to members of his administration. Quite remarkably, perhaps, given the atmosphere prevailing at the time, the paper wrote:

"Our cartoon yesterday, a caricature of a Hassidic Jew holding a Torah dripping with blood, was precisely the kind of casual stereotyping we abhor. Rushed deadlines are no excuse. We apologize for the offense, as does our cartoonist Turgay Karadağ. It is an offense we will not repeat."

Sunday, 6 June 2010

Iran – the dog that didn't bark (much)

When Sherlock Holmes draws Inspector Gregory's attention to the curious incident of the dog in the night-time, the Scotland Yard inspector objects: "The dog did nothing in the night-time." "That," observes Holmes, "was the curious incident."

It would not be accurate to say that Iran's President Ahmadinejad did not bark when news of the Gaza flotilla hit the headlines last Monday, but with the rest of the world yapping at Israel's heels, his bark seemed curiously muted. The conflict on board the Turkish-flagged Mavi Marmara, and the subsequent death of nine of the activists on board, led to demonstrations around the world, and particularly, perhaps, in Istanbul.

How strange that reports indicated that in Tehran and other big cities in Iran the streets remained "eerily quiet".

Ahmadinejad's reaction was not only comparatively low-key, it also seemed more than a trifle off-key. He focused his remarks on the rather unlikely prediction that Israel was planning "a massive attack" on Gaza, about which he said he had "precise information", and reserved much of his condemnation for those countries which "backed the Zionist régime."

As for the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, he held off making any comment at all until today (Sunday), and then announced, in a rather milk-and-water statement, that Iran "would be willing" to send its Revolutionary Guard members to accompany further aid ships to Gaza. Backing him up, Khamenei's Revolutionary Guard spokesman Ali Shirazai went no further than stating: "The naval wing of the Revolutionary Guard is ready to assist the peace flotilla to Gaza with all its effort and capabilities." "Would be willing", "ready to assist". Not much blood and guts in that.

It is well known that Iran's supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, sees himself and the Islamic Republic of Iran as the defender of Muslim rights around the world. During every major confrontation in the West Bank or Gaza, he has been the first to arrange demonstrations. TV screens are usually filled with howling mobs waving banners proclaiming death to Israel. Not this time. A week has passed since the flotilla affair, and there has been no major demonstration in Iran.

However last Friday hundreds of thousands of Iranians did gather at the shrine of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Their purpose - to observe the annual commemoration of Khomeini's death 21 years ago. It was in 1979 that the Khomeini-led Islamic revolution toppled the US-backed Shah, and brought hard-line Islamists to power. The annual ceremony serves as a political rally in support of Iran's hard-liners.

But this régime-sponsored gathering came just days ahead of the opposition's mass rally planned on the anniversary of last June's disputed presidential election. The rally is to be the first opposition gathering in months, and authorities have warned they will confront any unauthorized demonstrations.

The Iranian opposition claims that the 12 June 2009 election was the subject of massive fraud, and that Ahmadinejad in fact lost the popular vote. For months it mounted huge rallies against the election results, but was met by a heavy government crackdown, which the opposition says has so far killed 80 people during street protests. More than 100 opposition figures and activists were put on a mass trial, and 80 of them were sentenced to death or given prison terms ranging from six months to 15 years.

So Khamenei is fearful. His régime is isolated within Iran and has lost so much credibility that he is worried that even demonstrations against Israel's actions in countering the Gaza freedom flotilla could turn into anti-government rallies.

Khamenei and Ahmadinejad may have a wider concern. It seems increasingly likely that the five permanent members of the Security Council have agreed to impose new sanctions on Iran for its failure to comply with its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Even Iran's former supporters, Russia and China, appear to have agreed to follow President Obama's lead on this. If these sanctions are indeed imposed, Iran will find itself genuinely isolated for the first time.

The loss of prestige involved will be accentuated by the fallout from the Gaza flotilla incident. The benefits of that episode in terms of kudos, credit and stature in the Muslim world are accruing not to Iran, but to Turkey, which has shot to the top of the league as defender of Muslim rights. Iran has been spending millions in an effort to buy the support and loyalty of Hamas, but loyalty is a volatile currency in the world of Islamist extremism.

When one thinks about it, Turkey may be on to a winning streak. Unlike Iran, Turkey has a powerful economy, based on more than oil. Positioned on the border of Europe, it has close and fruitful relations with the EU and the USA. Indeed, from the US point of view, provided Turkey does not tip over entirely into the arms of Islamist extremists, it is extremely useful to have a close working relationship with a nation that is held in high esteem in the Muslim world. For in the Middle East Turkey, unlike Iran, enjoys good relations with Sunni-ruled countries such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt, as well as among Iran's friends Iraq and Syria. It almost seems as though Turkey could achieve what Iran has tried and failed to do for the last 32 years – become the acknowledged leader of the Islamic world.

What this would do for Turkey's application to join the European Union, outstanding since 1987, is a matter for speculation.

As for Israel, Turkey, of course, has a track record of friendly relations. For many years Turkey and Israel forged a close military, trade and cultural relationship. Turkey was the first Muslim country to recognise Israel back in 1949 (even before the Shah's Iran in 1950), and Israel became a major exporter of arms to the country. Israeli holidaymakers and businessmen flocked to the country, and a major deal saw Turkey exporting vast container-loads of water to Israel as a preliminary to the plan to build a massive pipeline from Turkey to supply Israel with water, electricity, gas and oil.

Then the atmosphere soured. From the time Recep Tayyip Erdogan became prime minister in 2003, Turkey's old secularist, pro-Western stance began to change, and support for Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran began to dominate Turkey's approach to foreign affairs.

Which explains Erdogan's unqualified condemnation of Israel's incursion into Gaza in November 2008, and the extraordinary scene at the Davos conference in January 2009, when he stormed out of a panel discussion after castigating Israeli President Shimon Peres for Israel's actions.

But even now, despite all Erdogan's wild and whirling words, Turkey’s military ties with Israel have not been adversely affected. According to Turkey's main English-language newspaper, ongoing programmes with Israeli defence companies worth hundreds of millions of dollars remain in place. It was only last Tuesday that National Defence Minister Vecdi Gönül made it clear that Turkey would not cut its defence cooperation with Israel.

One such programme is the delivery of Heron medium-altitude, long-endurance drone systems made by Israel Aerospace Industries. Six Heron unmanned aerial vehicles were delivered to the Turkish military in April. Four other Herons are scheduled for delivery in the next few weeks.

In another programme with Israel, the Turkish land vehicles manufacturer BMC signed a multi-million dollar contract last year with the Turkish procurement agency to provide 468 Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected, or MRAP, vehicles. The MRAP, based on the Navigator, was developed and is manufactured by Israel's Hatehof company.

In addition, Israel's IAI is providing bespoke radars for Turkish fighter jets, and Israel's Elbit is selling avionic systems as part of Turkey's modernisation of their aging T-38 trainer aircraft. Moreover, Turkey's military electronics company, Aselsan, and Israeli Military Industries late last year signed an agreement jointly to modernize M60 tanks in world armies using this kind of tank.

While commemorating their lost leader, the Ayatollah Khomenei, on Friday, Khameini and Ahmadinejad might have been reflecting on this great truth: Presidents, heads of state, and even régimes, come and go. Supply and demand goes on for ever.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

The Gaza Flotilla – some unanticipated consequences

Let there be no doubt about it – it was a operation that went terribly wrong and had a tragic outcome. Nine people are dead, when Israel's clear intention was to prevent the breaking of the naval blockade on Gaza with no loss of life.

On the face of it, the result appeared a complete victory for those planning the flotilla exploit. The calculation seems to have been that whatever the outcome – whether the six ships reached Gaza and the wildly enthusiastic reception that had been prepared, or whether they were stopped amid scenes of violence – equally well prepared – the PR benefits of forcing the world's attention to the problems of Gaza by defying Israel would have been achieved.

But events have a curious habit of having unforeseen, and unforeseeable, consequences.

The universal condemnation of Israel that followed the incident was inevitably couched in the now familiar terms of "disproportionate response" – though given the television pictures of the concerted attack launched on the Israeli soldiers, it is difficult to know what else they could have done but fire to defend themselves. Video footage of the incident shows the first soldiers landing on the ship being overwhelmed with men carrying sticks, bars, chains and knives. There are reports also of slingshots firing glass marbles. The first soldier on the ship was surrounded, overpowered and beaten before being thrown off the top deck. One soldier was stabbed, and two were shot with firearms seized from them.

All this and more is likely to emerge from the "prompt, impartial, credible and transparent investigation conforming to international standards" called for by the UN Security Council after 10 hours of emergency session, and subsequently reiterated by the USA. Israel is pressing for any such investigation to be conducted internally, but it is doubtful if a purely Israeli inquiry would be acceptable to those demanding it.

Yitzhak Molcho and Uzi Arad, senior advisers to Prime Minister Netanyahu, were in Washington yesterday for meetings with US officials. The US is understood to have suggested that one solution might be for Israel to hold an internal commission of inquiry into the events while, in order to bolster international confidence, the US sends an observer. Prime Minister Netanyahu is considering the idea. There does, however, seem to be support within the Israeli Cabinet for an internal commission of inquiry because of substantive questions relating to the actions of the armed forces.

If, however, the US, the UN, the EU and other parties also require an investigation involving an international element, it is obvious that it would be neither credible nor transparent without Israel's full cooperation. Before offering that, Israel would almost certainly require a say in its composition, for Israel is most unlikely to accede to a repetition of the biased and partial Goldstone inquiry into its Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, and would doubtless require to be fully satisfied about the impartiality of those conducting it. Israel is also likely to require some say in its terms of reference.

For example, they may demand that it examines Turkey's role in the incident. Turkey has mounted its high horse over the affair. Eight of those killed were Turkish citizens, and this may seem reason enough for the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to denounce the storming of the flotilla as "a bloody massacre", telling his parliament: "It is no longer possible to cover up or ignore Israel's lawlessness" and demanding that the USA condemn Israel for its operation.

But the flotilla was organised by western activists alongside the Turkish "Insani Yardim Vakfi" (IHH) movement, a non-governmental organisation supported by the Turkish government. As the USA, the Turkish government in the 1990s, the Danish Institute for International Studies and many other bodies have shown, the IHH is an Islamist terrorist organization with direct links to Al Qaeda and Hamas. The London "Daily Telegraph" described the IHH as "a radical Islamist group masquerading as a humanitarian agency." It is no surprise, therefore, that the primary mission of the flotilla, according to its organisers, was not to deliver humanitarian aid but to "break the siege".

Just a decade ago Turkey banned the IHH from earthquake relief efforts because of its violent, jihadist agenda. Now the Erdogan regime embraces the movement, and was apparently content for violence to be used on board the ships as a way to strike a strategic blow at Israel's international standing. Since Obama took office, Turkey has been moving ever more obviously into the Iranian axis. Turkey's role in this affair is certainly a factor that seems to demand investigation. It is surprising that Israel has not so far condemned the Turkish government's complicity in an enterprise backed by a known terrorist organisation and apparently intent on violent confrontation.

The results of a commission of inquiry with an international component could certainly not be predicted, but if the investigation wants Israel's cooperation, she seems to be in a position to ensure that those conducting it are acceptable in Israel's view, and that its terms of reference are wide enough to investigate precisely where responsibility for the violent and tragic outcome lies.

The flotilla enterprise may have a further unanticipated result. Despite the justifiable statements of regret at the loss of life, and the widespread condemnation of Israel's botched operation, the events of 31 May do not change the underlying strategic rationale for Israel's naval blockade, which is intended to stop the smuggling of arms from Iran, Syria or elsewhere to Hamas. As a result, the US and the EU, the Palestinian Authority and Egypt continue to share an interest with Israel in maintaining the peace process, containing Hamas and preventing it from rearming. A lifting of the blockade would provide Hamas with a great moral victory which all parties wish to deny them.

As regards the peace process, the good news is that the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, has rejected calls to withdraw from the proximity talks. The decision is a gamble on his part. He must be careful not to alienate Palestinian popular opinion, but if he had suspended the talks he risked allowing Hamas to claim a victory, boosting its popularity in Gaza at the expense of his party, Fatah. The Palestinian leader may also be reluctant to anger the United States just weeks before he is due to hold talks with President Obama, who has invested a great deal of effort in bringing about the proximity talks.

On the face of it, therefore, the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, despite the worldwide PR attention is has achieved, has not and could not alter the realpolitik that governs the current Middle East dynamic. A commission of inquiry could possibly result in an unwelcome spotlight being directed on the Erdogan government's involvement in the affair. Meanwhile, the proximity talks between the Palestinian Authority and Israel appear still on the tracks and chugging forward.