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.

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