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.

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