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.

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