Mavi Marmara: Another Media Assault on Israel’s Legitimacy
By Alex Grobman, PhD
In recent weeks, the worrisome current relationship between Israel and Turkey has been much in the news. Relations between the two countries had been very good before the rise to power of the Turkish Islamist politician Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his “Justice and Development” Party (AKP) in 2003. But, in 2010, seven years after he was first elected prime minister of Turkey, Mr. Erdoğan, an ardent supporter of the Palestinian Arabs, including the terrorist Hamas faction, engineered a crisis with Israel which was encouraged by the pro-Palestinian media throughout the Western world.
Attempts by Palestinian Arabs and their supporters to embarrass and malign Israel in the media are relentless. One of the most successful operations against Israel involved a Turkish-supported flotilla ostensibly designed to break Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip and increase international awareness of the plight of the alleged destitute Arabs living there.
In June 2007, after Hamas assumed control of the Gaza Strip, Israel initiated a blockade to restrict the flow of smuggled rockets, mainly from Iran, that had been fired at civilian targets in Israeli towns. The Israeli Navy successfully thwarted a number of attempts by Hamas supporters to breach the naval blockade without incident.
Ship of Terror
On May 22, 2010, the Mavi Marmara, a 4,000-ton ship, the length of a football field, set sail from Istanbul’s Haydarpaşa port on route to Gaza, allegedly with the approval of Mr. Erdoğan.
On board the ship were 700 recognized radical leftists and Islamic extremists, including European members of parliament, and Haneen Zoabi, a Palestinian-Arab woman member of Knesset.
Five small protest ships accompanied the larger vessel, but an additional ship had to forgo the voyage after encountering mechanical problems. That ship’s passengers were transferred to the Mavi Marmara.
Thus, a caravan of six ships became a flotilla whose participants hoped to thwart Israel’s goal of protecting its citizens.
Remembering Anti-Jewish Islamic Past
Prior to the launch of the flotilla, activists chanted Islamic battle cries recalling “Khaibar,” the last Jewish village defeated by the Prophet Muhammad’s army in 628 CE. The battle marked the end of Jewish presence in Arabia.
“[Remember] Khaibar, Khaibar, oh Jews! The army of Muhammad will return!” the activists chanted.
“Either the Israelis let us reach Gaza, or they can stop us,” one participant told Al Jazeera. “We can also die as martyrs and never return, which is okay with us.”
No Humanitarian Interest
According to Gerald Steinberg, founder and president of NGO Monitor, the objective of this hyped “humanitarian” mission was not, as the activists claimed, to provide Palestinian Arabs “trapped behind the Israeli blockade,” with aid, but, rather, to ambush the Israelis in a “bloody confrontation to exploit the ‘halo effect,’ which is automatically granted to groups claiming moral missions.”
It was also planned to reinforce the image of Israelis as “war criminals,” responsible for the “plight of starving residents of Gaza.”
In fact, however, contrary to the “reports” of many elements in the media, people in Gaza were not starving. Then, as now, every day Israel delivers tons of food, drugs and humanitarian aid to Gaza.
The Mavi Marmara was operated by the Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH), an NGO supposedly engaged in humanitarian relief activities based on Islamic principles. The IHH was also one of the main organizers of the Gaza Flotilla. Despite its high-minded description, the IHH’s reality was much darker.
According to The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, the IHH supports radical Islamic terrorist networks and provides logistical support and funding to global jihad networks as well.
Through its so-called “Union of Good,” the IHH has prominently supported Hamas, too, said the center.
The “Union of Good” is chaired by Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi, known for his religious declaration that encourages homicide attacks against Israeli civilians.
In April 2011, the Dutch government placed IHH Netherland on the Dutch list of terrorist organizations, and froze the group’s local assets to preclude it from sending funds to IHH Germany. Dutch Foreign Minister Uri Rosenthal explained that the organization was (and is) banned in Germany because it has procured funds for Hamas, which has been on the EU terrorist list since 2003.
Another sponsor of the flotilla was the International Solidarity Movement (ISM,) a Palestinian Arab-led “movement committed to resisting the long-entrenched and systematic oppression and dispossession of the Palestinian population, using non-violent, direct-action methods and principles.”
Writing in Mother Jones, Joshua Hammer described the ISM as having “courted controversy from the start.”
“Embracing Palestinian militants, even suicide bombers, as freedom ﬁghters, ISM has adopted a risky policy of ‘direct action’—entering military zones to interfere with the operations of Israeli soldiers,” said Mr. Hammer.
Trying to Avoid Confrontation
Even before the flotilla left port, Israel did what it could to forestall a military encounter. Israel’s foreign ministry alerted the ambassadors of Cyprus, Greece, Ireland, Sweden, and Turkey, telling them that Israel had “issued warrants that prohibit the entrance of the vessels to Gaza.”
Yossi Gal, the ministry’s director general, warned that the flotilla was “about to break international law.” He called the flotilla “an absolute provocation” and a “cheap political stunt,” pointing out that Gaza did not suffer from a lack of humanitarian aid.
Israel’s dilemma was summed up by foreign ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor, who understood that no matter how the Israel Defense Forces responded, Israel was in for problems. “We can’t win on this one in terms of PR,” he said. “If we let them throw egg at us, we appear stupid with egg on our face. If we try to prevent them by force, we appear as brutes.”
Stopping the Flotilla
Stopping the Mavi Marmara was no easy task. Neither Israel nor the United States had the technical ability to stop the ship safely because of its sheer size. There was fear that any attempt to immobilize the vessel might have led to its sinking.
Nevertheless, on the night of May 31, 2010, the Israel Navy intercepted the flotilla and, using helicopters, ordered the ships to stop. The passengers responded by throwing iron balls at the helicopters, leaving the Israelis no alternative but to board the ship.
As a team of Israeli commandos rappelled from helicopters onto the deck of the Mavi Marmara, they were overwhelmed by dozens of IHH attackers armed with knives, axes, iron bars and at least one gun. Members of IHH, who had boarded the Mavi Marmara without being inspected, were wearing gas masks and protective vests. They remained on the upper deck in anticipation of the Israeli assault.
One of the Western journalists aboard smuggled out an hour-long video showing IHH casualties—all of whom were men and most with beards—being brought downstairs with either gunshot wounds to the knee or close to the heart.
Former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren observed that, although the ship possessed a state-of-the-art media room, the vessel did not seem to have a sick bay or any medical equipment.
On the smuggled video, a woman is heard pleading over a loud speaker to the Israelis for help for the many injured.
The Israeli commandos needed 40 men to secure the ship. Forty-six protesters were wounded and nine were killed, including a Turkish-American citizen. A tenth Turkish activist died in May 2014 after four years in a coma.
Evidence of Terror
In a New York Times editorial, Ambassador Oren reported that about 100 of the captured protestors were carrying almost one million euros. On the Mavi Marmara, spent bullet cartridges were found, but these were not the same caliber used by the Israeli commandos. In fact, some of the commandos suffered gunshot wounds.
Propaganda clips showing passengers “injured” by IDF forces were also found on the ship, but these videos had been recorded during daylight, which means they were recorded hours before the nighttime operation occurred.
Despite these pieces of evidence, the Mavi Marmara episode was seen as a clash between peaceful protesters and militant Israelis, and, as such, it caused international outrage.
Aziz Dweik, a leading Hamas lawmaker in Judea and Samaria, was not surprised by the international response.
“When we use violence, we help Israel win international support. The Gaza flotilla has done more for Gaza than 10,000 rockets,” he said.
Salah Bardawil, a Hamas lawmaker in Gaza City, agreed, adding that, before the Mavi Marmara episode, his organization believed international support “was just empty words.” After the episode, he said, Hamas became “very interested in international delegations.” The goal, he said, was “bringing Israeli officials to justice through legal proceedings.”
The success of this approach can be seen the negative reaction in the media. The New York Times headline read “Deadly Israeli Raid Draws Condemnation,” and the paper’s story depicted a diplomatic fiasco for Israel. Anti-Israel riots were held throughout the world accompanied by denunciations of the Jewish state.
In the UK, the Guardian’s coverage of the incident was characterized by Adam Levick, managing editor of UK Media Watch, a watchdog group that promotes fair and accurate coverage of Israel, as the “most obsessive and completely one-sided.”
During the first four days after the incident, the Guardian ran more than 70 separate reports and analyses. The overwhelming consensus among Guardian contributors, editors, and reporters was that Israel was responsible for something similar to “piracy” or even “state terrorism.”
Turkey withdrew its ambassador from Israel, expelled the Israeli ambassador from Ankara, and terminated already scheduled military exercises with Israel as the countries’ previously tense relations became even further embittered.
In European diplomatic circles, Israel was denounced. French President Nicolas Sarkozy cried “Disproportionate use of force,” and English Prime Minister David Cameron called Israel’s action “completely unacceptable.”
“We should do everything we can to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” said Mr. Cameron, adding that the blockade only “strengthens Hamas’s grip” on Gaza. He insisted it was in Israel’s “own interest to lift the blockade.”
The German government issued a statement expressing its “shock” as did UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
At a news conference with EU leaders, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said, “The death of people is irreparable and absolutely unjustified.” While EU President Herman Von Rompuy described the fatalities as “inexplicable.”
“We regret the loss of life, condemn the use of violence, and demand an immediate, full, and impartial investigation,” said Mr. Von Rompuy.
Demands before the Attack
Even before the flotilla arrived in the Mediterranean near the port of Ashdod, there were international demands on Israel to end the blockade. These increased exponentially after the attack.
“We would like to reiterate the EU’s call for an immediate, sustained, and unconditional opening of crossings for the flow of humanitarian aid, commercial goods, and persons to and from Gaza. The continued policy of closure is unacceptable and politically counterproductive,” said Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy chief. She added that the EU “remains gravely concerned by the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.”
The Israeli political left also weighed in against their own government. Aluf Benn, editor-in-chief of the far-left-wing Ha’aretz daily called for the government to convene a national committee of inquiry. “There is no other fitting or proper way to clarify the circumstances of the incident, which began as an act of protest and ended with dead demonstrators and a grave international crisis,” said Mr. Benn.
Legal Blockade and Self-Defense
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defended the Israeli action, explaining that, when they were attacked by the flotilla passengers, the Israeli commandos were enforcing a legal blockade and fired only in self-defense. The Israeli military released a video of the raid which substantiated Mr. Netanyahu’s explanation.
In an official statement, Mr. Netanyahu called the Israeli action “a clear case of self-defense.”
“Israel cannot allow the free flow of weapons, rockets, and missiles to the terrorist base of Hamas in Gaza. It’s a terrorist base supported by Iran; it’s already fired thousands of rockets at Israeli cities; it seeks to smuggle in thousands more; and this is why Israel must inspect the goods that come into Gaza.
“It’s also a clear case of self-defense because, as our soldiers were inspecting these ships, they were attacked—they were almost lynched. They were attacked with clubs, with knives, perhaps with live gunfire, and they had to defend themselves—they were going to be killed. Israel will not allow its soldiers to be lynched and neither would any other self-respecting country,” he said.
Israel’s policy towards Gaza is, he said, “simple.”
“We say: any goods, any humanitarian aid to Gaza, can enter. What we want to prevent is their ability to bring in war materiel—missiles, rockets, the means for constructing casings for missiles and rockets. This has been our policy, and yesterday we told the flotilla—which was not a simple, innocent flotilla—to bring their goods into Ashdod. We told them that we would examine their cargo and allow those goods that could not be used as weapons or shielding materials for Hamas into Gaza,” he said.
Mr. Netanyahu then explained that five of the six ships participating in the flotilla accepted Israel’s terms without violence.
“Apparently, the sixth ship, the largest, which had on board hundreds of people, had a premeditated plan to harm IDF soldiers. When the first soldiers dropped down onto the deck of the ship, they were attacked by a violent mob and were compelled to defend their lives. That is when the unfortunate events took place,” he concluded.
Legal Basis for Blockade
Nevertheless, four senior Israeli military commanders have been charged in a Turkish court with killing the nine Turkish protesters. Ex-military chief-of-staff Gabi Ashkenazi and former heads of Israeli military intelligence, the navy, and the air force were tried in absentia.
The statements by world leaders and the verdicts in Turkish courts have been challenged by Israeli academics who argued that, in establishing the naval blockade of Gaza, Israel was and is within its rights and in full compliance with international law because it has fulfilled all the conditions for a lawful blockade.
In a paper outlining the legal basis of the blockade, Ruth Lapidoth, Professor Emeritus of International Law at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, argued that the relations between Israel and Hamas are “in the nature of an armed conflict.”
She maintained that, these days, no formal declaration of war is necessary and, therefore, when two entities are at war, the laws of armed conflict apply.
“This means that Israel may control shipping headed for Gaza—even when the vessels are still on the high seas,” she said, explaining that “stopping the flotilla heading for Gaza in international waters 100 kilometers from Israel was not illegal; in time of armed conflict, ships intending to breach the blockade may be searched even on the high seas.”
By notifying the relevant authorities of the countries participating in the flotilla, Israel fulfilled its obligations to them, she said.
There were several official international probes into the incident. One, by the UN Human Rights Council, decided the blockade was illegal and that Israel’s actions were not only “disproportionate,” but they also “betrayed an unacceptable level of brutality” with evidence of “willful killing.”
But, on August 2, 2010, the UN Secretary-General established a Panel of Inquiry, chaired by New Zealand’s Sir Geoffrey Palmer, who held his country’s offices of Attorney-General, Minister of Justice, leader of the House, Deputy Prime Minister, and Prime Minister. Mr. Palmer was assisted on the panel by Alvaro Uribe, a former president of Columbia, and representatives of Israel and Turkey.
The Palmer Report, published in September 2011, found that the Israeli naval blockade of Gaza was legal and that there were “serious questions about the conduct, true nature, and objectives of the flotilla organizers, particularly the IHH.”
Finding the Blockade Legal
The report concluded that the fundamental principle of the freedom of navigation on the high seas is subject to certain limited exceptions under international law. In Israel’s case, the naval blockade was imposed as a legitimate security measure in order to prevent weapons from entering Gaza by sea, and its implementation complied with the requirements of internal law.
The panel also decided that the flotilla had acted “recklessly” in attempting to breach the naval blockade and that their actions needlessly carried the potential for escalation, despite the fact that the majority of the flotilla participants had no violent intentions.
Lastly, the report ruled that the IDF personnel faced significant, organized, and violent resistance from a group of passengers when Israeli security forces boarded the Mavi Marmara. This meant the Israelis were required to use force for their own protection. Three Israeli soldiers were captured, mistreated, and placed at risk by those violent passengers. Several other Israeli security personnel were wounded.
Nevertheless, the panel still accused the IDF of using “unacceptable” force.
Trying to Normalize Relations
Although before 2003, Israel and Turkey had been considered close allies, Mr. Erdoğan’s rise to power coupled with the 2008-2009 war in Gaza and then the flotilla incident left relations between the two countries in tatters.
After the Mavi Marmara incident, negotiating teams from Israel and Turkey expended some efforts to normalize relations between the two countries. There are some Turks, such as Aykan Erdemir, a former member of the Turkish Parliament and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, who believe rapprochement between Israel and Turkey is vital for regional stability.
According to Mr. Erdemir, a viable relationship is sustainable only if Turkey can confront the ubiquitous antisemitism and anti-Israel policies that pervade much of Turkish society as a result of the policies and polemics of Mr. Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party.
“A future built on dialogue must start with genuine conversation about the wrongs of the past, but also about the dangerous politics that have led us to this perilous present,” said Mr. Erdemir.
Solid Trade Relations
Surprisingly, the political dispute between Turkey and Israel had not impeded commerce between the two countries. According to Shoshana Bryen, senior director of the Washington-based Jewish Policy Center, trade between the two countries has doubled in the past five years, reaching $5.6 billion.
Although arms agreements which had been signed before 2010 are being held in abeyance, trade between Israel and Turkey in chemicals, agricultural products, and manufactured goods has increased. Turkish businesses export their products to Israel by sea and then transport them across the Jewish state to Jordan and beyond by truck to avoid having to send them through war-torn Syria.
On June 27, 2016, Israel and Turkey announced they had reached a reconciliation agreement to restore bilateral relations after six years of strained ties.
Reconciliation or Capitulation?
As part of the compromise, Israel retains strict control over Gaza’s borders, but has granted permission for Turkey to send aid to Gaza through the Israeli port in Ashdod. In addition, Turkey will be able to build in Gaza a 200-bed hospital, new power plants, residential buildings, and other desperately needed infrastructure.
Israel further agreed to allow Turkey to initiate major development projects for Arabs in Judea and Samaria.
In the agreement, Turkey has assured Israel it will not enable Hamas to execute, plan, or direct any military activity against the Jewish state.
But when a Turkish official recently spoke about the agreement, he denied that there was any mention of Hamas.
“There are absolutely no references to Hamas in the agreement,” the Turkish official said. “Turkey will continue supporting the Palestinian state and the people of Palestine.”
Ankara, he said, is “pleased to announce that representatives of the Palestinian government and Hamas have voiced their support to Turkey within the context of the negotiations.”
As part of the agreement, Israel has consented to establish a $20 million fund to compensate families of Turks who were killed and wounded in the raid. In return, Turkey will ensure that Israeli officials are spared from prosecution.
Why Are We Apologizing?
Many Israelis, especially among the growing majority on the political right, were less than pleased with the agreement.
MK Naftali Bennett, head of the right-wing religious Jewish Home Party and Israel’s Minister of Education and Diaspora Affairs, acknowledged that resumption of ties with Turkey is an important Israeli national interest, but, he said, “In the end, my balance sheet comes out against it.”
“Erdoğan either sent a boat of terrorists to Israel or allowed one to be sent; we sent soldiers to defend ourselves, and now we’re apologizing and sending them compensation. This harms Israel’s resilience and national honor,” he complained.
National Honor and Security
He stressed that national honor is a component of national security. “It has even greater weight because there’s no other country that apologizes to its attackers. If we had shot down a passenger plane by mistake, then, of course, we’d have to apologize and pay compensation, but not in this situation,” he said.
Mr. Bennett said he feared the ransom Israel had agreed to pay would set a bad precedent and he questioned whether Turkey could have been persuaded to settle the issue of suits against Israeli security forces without receiving the $20 million.
“We can’t turn the threat of lawsuits into something that we’re prepared to pay $20 million to cancel,” he said. “We’re conveying to everyone: ‘Come, sue us,’ because that’s our weak point. There’s no way to pinpoint exactly how much this hurts us. With our own hands, we will turn this into a strategic threat. We can deal with lawsuits. Will we now pay billions just to prevent lawsuits against soldiers?”