The so-called “peace flotilla“ episode raises many questions, and most of them have to do with the role of Turkey. After all Israel behaved from beginning to end with the utmost transparency. But nobody knows exactly what went on in Turkey – how the operation was planned and what part the Turkish government played in its implementation.
Israel’s position regarding Gaza is clear. The blockade was set up following the bloody takeover of the Gaza Strip by Hamas and the subsequent indiscriminate firing of thousands of rockets on the towns of Southern Israel for eight long years; the smuggling of weapons, missiles and explosives into the Strip. The blockade is intended to cut off arms supplies to a hostile Hamas regime which keeps on declaring its intention to destroy Israel in accordance to its covenant.
Imposing a maritime blockade is a recognized and legitimate measure under international law. The blockading country has the right to stop vessels approaching the blockaded area to check they are not carrying weapons even when they are still in international waters, as long as it has been made clear that the vessels intend to violate the blockade. This is well known – both by governments and by newspapers reporting on Israel and on Gaza.
The latest incident began several months ago. IHH, a militant Turkish organization, announced its intention, together with a number of Islamic groups and far Left European organizations in the so-called “free Gaza movement”, to send several vessels carrying “humanitarian supplies” to breach the blockade and embarrass Israel.
Israel immediately contacted the Turkish government, since the operation was planned from that country, to direct the ships to the Israeli port of Ashdod where the “humanitarian supplies” could be unloaded and transferred to Gaza. It reminded the Turks of the fact that dozens and sometimes hundreds of trucks cross daily from Israel into Gaza carrying essential supplies and medicine. Foreign visitors to Gaza have been able to see by themselves that the shelves are well stocked. Turkey refused to act.
Israel also contacted several other countries involved since ships carrying their flag were about to take part in the flotilla. Cyprus alone accepted to act. All involved in the flotilla repeated that theirs was a peaceful enterprise and that they would only offer passive resistance.
Israel then announced that it would act according to its official policy. The international community was thus well aware of the blockade’s existence and of the reasons for it. It was also aware of the fact that Israel intended to stop the ships and divert them to Ashdod. On Monday, when Israeli warships met the flotilla, a forceful warning was issued to the skippers of the vessels and they were told to change course for Ashdod. That was met with a resounding “Go back to Auschwitz” and other unprintable terms.
The largest vessel in the convoy was the “Marmara”, a Turkish ship which had sailed from Turkey with some 600 people on board. When Israeli soldiers reached its deck, they were met not with peaceful protest but by knives, iron bars and guns wielded by dozens of Turkish terrorists. Dozens of videos of the incident leave no room for doubt. There was a deliberate attempt to lynch the soldiers. They had no choice but to defend themselves.
This they did with a restraint which does them credit. Other armies might have reacted more strongly. It must be noted that according to reports in the Turkish press, some terrorists had declared before setting out that they intended to become “martyrs”, that is, suicide bombers. Two of them – who did find their death on the Marmara – even filmed a video clip according the well known tradition of Islamist extremists. The mother of one of them admitted it freely on Turkish television.
It is therefore not clear what a commission of enquiry would have to investigate regarding Israel. There may be a need for an internal investigation into the way the operation was planned and carried out, but that is an Israeli issue. Nothing Israel did violated international law.
Many questions unanswered
Let us now turn to Turkey. There is indeed an urgent need to set up an international commission of inquiry under the auspices of the United Nations to determine what exactly the role of Turkey was in planning and facilitating the event. IHH is an extremist Islamist organization created in 1992; according to the CIA it is a terrorist organization with links to al-Qaeda and to Hamas which has been involved in several terror attacks. This is confirmed by Jean Louis Bruguiere, a former French investigative judge and an antiterrorism expert at the Council of Europe, the Commission of the European Union and the United Nations (UNODC).
During a search carried out in 1997 in the movement’s headquarters in Turkey, munitions and incriminating documents were found. In recent years, IHH has reinforced its links to Hamas; it has financed the rebuilding of the port of Gaza and has bought two ships – including the “Marmara” to fight the blockade. It was obvious that what the organization had in mind was not a humanitarian mission but the breaking of the blockade.
The international commission of inquiry will therefore have to investigate why Turkey let the organization operate openly on its soil and why it did not arrest its leaders. It will have to check the nature of the relationship between the Turkish government and IHH, especially while that organization was reinforcing its links with Hamas. It will have to clarify what Turkey did to assist IHH in planning and carrying out the operation in recent months.
Also to be scrutinized is the way IHH secured its funding. Was the Turkish government one of the contributors? Another question is how the Turkish government let armed trained terrorists go unchecked on board the “Marmara” with thousands of dollars in their pockets. It appears that the Turkish government was involved in criminal activities in violation not only of international law but also of Turkish law. A thorough investigation is needed and only the UN can carry it out.
Then, and only then, will the world be fully aware of the role played by Turkey. But it will not be enough. There were six ships in the flotilla, and many “peace activists” from other countries. It will be the task of the commission to determine the nature of the links between the “Free Gaza movement” and the leftist organizations which participated and the IHH terror organization. National and international laws may have been violated. There were also several elected representatives to national parliament in the flotilla, including an Arab member of the Israeli Knesset. To what extent, if any, did they cooperate with a known terrorist organization?
Some people reading this will probably shrug and think “Dream on! After all Turkey is a regional power with 80 million citizens, a member of NATO, a strategic ally of the United States. It will not react kindly to any attempt to investigate what it did. Much better to blame Israel as always.” Perhaps. But stifling the truth and fostering lies comes at a price.
The writer, a Fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, is Israel’s former ambassador to Romania, Egypt and Sweden