It is rare to go even a week without news of some altercation in the eastern Mediterranean.  Just the other week five people were killed because of confusion over the position of a tree on the Israel/Lebanon border. The 31st May was no exception. Around 4.30am the Naval Commando 13 unit of the Israeli navy boarded the Mavi Marmara, the flagship of the Gaza Freedom Flotilla that was attempting to deliver aid to Gaza, whilst it was in international waters. Clashes between the commandos and the pro-Palestinian activists broke out, resulting in the deaths of eight Turkish and one Turkish-American passenger.  About fifty others, including seven Israeli commandos, were injured.

As is generally the case with these incidents both sides accuse the other of being responsible for the violent manner in which the flotilla was stopped.  Israel claims that its commandos boarded the Mavi Marmara only after repeated warnings, and fired their weapons in self-defence; the activists say that the commandos started firing before they had even landed on the boats deck and that they only fought back in self-defence.

“Death in the Med”

A recent episode of Panorama, seeking to piece together what happened using video from the ship (supplied by both sides) and interviews with the activists and commandos involved has given what seems to be an objective account of what happened, though this view is not shared by everyone. [1] It painted a picture of the Turkish Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief (IHH), a Turkish Islamist charity, essentially taking control of the Mavi Marmara, and looking for a violent confrontation with Israeli forces.

The vast majority of the activists were wanting to resist using non-violent methods (most of the boats cooperated with Israeli security after challenging the blockade), but the IHH were armed with knives and metal bars. Some of the group’s members openly declared on camera their wish to confront the commandos and a willingness to be shahid (“martyrs”; literally translated as “witness” capturing the other side of the concept of martyrdom, what 19th century anarchists called the “propaganda of the deed”).  It seems clear that the IHH had different ideas to the rest of the activists on the flotilla.

When the Israeli commandos boarded the ship they did so armed with paint-ball rifles and real hand-guns.  The activists claimed that the commandos opened fire as they abseiled from their helicopters, a charge the Israelis deny saying that it is impossible to abseil and fire a gun at the same time. The commandos involved told Jane Corbin of Panorama that they only switched to live ammunition once they were fired upon (a later investigation by the Israelis claimed to have discovered bullets and shells not used by the Israeli forces).

The fighting broke out as soon as the commandos landed on the ship’s deck. The IHH fought with bars and knives, stabbing at least one commando and throwing another one off the top deck.  The commandos fired on the activists killing nine of them with (according to the autopsy carried out by the Turkish authorities) thirty bullets.

The boat was eventually captured and taken to a port in Israel where many of the activists were detained and then deported. Israel held the aid in warehouses promising to send it to Gaza, but Jane Corbin found that much of the medical aid had been left in storage where it soon went out of date (although considering the long shelf lives of medicines they must have been fairly close to going out of date when the Israelis took them).[2]

The flotilla

What was the purpose of the Gaza Freedom Flotilla?  And why did the Israelis act with such force in preventing it from arriving in Gaza? The flotilla itself was organised by the Free Gaza Movement and the IHH. Its stated aim was to deliver aid to Gaza and “to raise international awareness about the prison-like closure of the Gaza Strip and pressure the international community to review its sanctions policy and end its support for continued Israeli occupation”.

The Gaza strip has been blockaded by the Israelis (with help from the Egyptians, who fear what impact Hamas may have on the Muslim Brotherhood) ever since Hamas took control of the tiny strip of land in a coup against Fatah in June 2007. Israel claims that the objective of the blockade is to hold Hamas “responsible and accountable” for the rocket attacks on Israeli territory, and to secure the release of Gilad Schalit, the Israeli soldier whom Hamas kidnapped in 2006. They also claim that the naval blockade must be maintained because Iran smuggles weapons to Hamas by boat.

Its main aim, however, is more likely to be to restrict Hamas’ ability to govern in the hope of turning Gazans against the Islamist organisation, which Israel, and much of the Western world, views as primarily a terrorist group.  This policy has drawn much criticism from the international community. John Ging, the Gaza director of the UN refugee agency, has said: “If present closures continue, we anticipate that Gaza will become nearly a totally aid-dependent society, a society robbed of the possibility of self-sufficiency and the dignity of work.”

Humanitarian concerns aside, it seems unlikely that Israel will achieve its aims through what is essentially collective punishment. It is more probable that Gazans will hold Israel responsible for their situation rather than Hamas, and if anything, discontent is more likely to result in an increase in support for al-Qaeda-inspired groups rather than a return to the Fatah fold.

International reaction

So, what have been the consequences of this incident?  The United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was “shocked” by the raid, adding “It is vital that there is a full investigation to determine exactly how this bloodshed took place. The Lebanese PM Saad al-Hariri described the raid as a “crazy move.” Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s Prime Minister, described it as an act of “state terrorism”. Incidentally this is rather hypocritical considering that by late June Turkeys conflict with Kurdish separatists, a conflict that bears comparison with the Palestinian question, had resumed, and Erdogan was promising that Kurdish rebels would “drown in their own blood”. Erdogan also withdrew Turkey’s Ambassador to Israel and cancelled three planned joint military exercises between the two countries.

The US, unsurprisingly, was rather more circumspect, with the White House releasing a statement saying that it “regrets the loss of life” and is “working to understand the circumstances of the tragedy.” [3]

Israel and Turkey

However, where regional dynamics are concerned, the most important outcome has been regarding the relationship between Israel and Turkey. Turkey has been Israel’s main ally in the region for some time but recent events, starting with the 2008-09 Gaza war, have undermined this. While the Turkish government was not directly behind the IHH’s involvement with the flotilla the moderate Islamist ruling party AKP, did nothing to stop them, fearing that its “Islamic” credentials might be questioned. According to MERIP, this is against the background of a fraught domestic situation for the AKP who are facing criticisms for not engaging enough with “Islamic” issues such as Palestine. [4]

The IHH view the AKP as defectors from the Islamist cause. Israel’s blockade of the Gaza strip since Hamas took power and subsequent events, such as the raid on the Mavi Marmara, have provided the AKP with the opportunity to bolster their Islamic credentials. This has strained the relationship with Israel but it is consistent with Turkey’s overall regional strategy.

According to Alastair Crooke, director of Conflicts Forum and someone with extensive knowledge of the region, since the Soviet Union collapsed and Iraq was defeated in the first Gulf war, Ankara has been attempting to redefine its role in the Middle East.  Having been a member of NATO for 44 years, Turkey is now beginning to look east. In 2001, Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, published Strategic Depth where he argued that Turkey no longer needed to be NATO’s “wing” state and should also look past EU membership to become a major power in the Middle East. This has involved moving closer to both Iran and Syria, in what Crooke describes as the new “northern tier” of power. [5]

Ankara, then, views taking up the Palestinian cause as important for shoring up both its domestic and regional position. What will happen to the Turkish-Israeli relationship over the long run is far from clear, but at the moment it is not looking promising. In the meantime the issue at the heart of the matter – Israel’s insecurity and the Gaza blockade – continues.

Postscript: I am aware that the objectivity of the Panorama program is being questioned with “pro-Palestinian” supporters claiming that it was just propaganda for Israel. The main criticisms seem to be that it did not deal with what is happening in Gaza or with the occupation in general. These criticisms appear to have missed the point. The parameters of the program were clearly drawn (and were implicit within the title, Death in the Med) and were supposed to specifically cover what happened on the Mavi Marmara. Jane Corbin provided enough information about the context of the flotilla raid but did not dwell on or pass judgement about it because that was not the chosen topic of the program.


[1] http://www.jpost.com/International/Article.aspx?id=185381

[2] http://news.bbc.co.uk/panorama/hi/front_page/newsid_8909000/8909361.stm

[3] http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/middle_east/article7141083.ece

[4] http://www.merip.org/mero/mero060110.html

[5] http://www.twq.com/10july/docs/10jul_Crooke.pdf

One thought on “A Summary: The Gaza Flotilla Raid and its Aftermath

  1. Pingback: The Middle East Debate « We Left Marks

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