Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Flotilla Fiasco

Alright already. Now that the flurry (no, blizzard? Sandstorm? World-ending hurricane?) of rumors has ended I can finally report on the Flotilla Fiasco without reporting the same likely untrue information that everyone else was.

But seriously though. As soon as this thing happened, every news outlet and blog in the world was foaming at the mouth to get some information, any information about it. People were reprinting the most ridiculous things, subjects were branching off into whole other emotionally-motivated subjects. Like the whole Helen Thomas thing. Just wait 'til I get to that.

The Build-Up

So, first of all, we knew the ships were coming weeks in advance. The activists had made it clear they were coming, despite Israel's warnings. Both sides fueled the media hype by upping the ante, throughout the voyage. Israel was accused of trying to sabotage the ships (Israel is accused of trying to sabotage the ships every time an aid group sails to Gaza), and Israeli spokespeople (including Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman) went on about how the Turkish Foundation for Human Rights and Freedom and Humanitarian Relief (henceforth, IHH), who had provided much of the support for the operation, was secretly a terrorist organization and a front for Al-Qaeda. When asked for proof of this by savvy bloggers, Israel backpeddled a bit (as they will be forced to do throughout this debacle), saying that IHH supports Hamas and is "sympathetic to al-Qaeda" (source).

From the very beginning, the flotilla group made much better use of media, especially new media, tweeting and blogging and facebooking and youtubing away. Israel has attempted to match this threat in the media war by posting videos on the official IDF youtube page, but it was too little, too late. In my opinion, any formal entity, no matter how media-savvy its members are, cannot possibly match the pitch and intensity of an informal entity, whose members are not bound by any hierarchy, security concerns, or accountability. There has been in more recent days talk about an international enquiry into where the fault lies for this whole thing (the details I will get to, keep your pants on) but even if such an enquiry were to determine that Israel's use of force was justified and that the activists were at fault, who would shoulder the blame? It would be dispersed, symbolically, among everyone present. The Turkish government would have a little egg on its face (nothing compared to what Israel is currently wearing) but it would be a bit like when a mob starts a stampede on Black Friday because everyone's kid wants that toy and the store won't open its doors yet and it's 5am and everyone is tired and annoyed. Somebody started shoving first, all right, but we'll never know who it was.

So basically, before the confrontation even happened, everyone in the world knew Israel was going to end up looking bad, not least of all, Israel itself. FM Lieberman said on May 28, days before the action, that the whole thing was, "an attempt at violent propaganda against Israel."

In the Morning

On Monday, May 31, I woke to headlines about the "Flotilla Massacre." 10 people "at least" were dead, many more injured. Perusal of stories showed that Israeli "commandos" had slid down ropes from helicopters and opened fire on the unarmed activists. I simply put my head in my hands and sighed. I knew that, no matter what further information came to light on this issue, Israel had shot itself in the foot with this idiotic maneuver. In fact, it might not just have been the foot. Israel may have shot itself in the liver and will slowly and painfully bleed to death. We'll see. Threats have been made, but have proved to be most likely empty. But I have yet to get to that.

The headlines that day were mostly speculative. How many were dead? Who were they? Of what nationality? Who started the fighting? What would the international reaction be? And of course, where are all the images? In today's world, when everyone has at least a cellphone camera, and the people on the boat had already demonstrated their prowess for media technology, the curious question was why haven't we seen anything?

We found out later Israel was making serious attempts to control what information got to the press. It had cut communications on the Mavi Marmara just as Al-Jazeera correspondent Jamal Elshayyal was finishing a broadcast. He reported that two people had been killed and there were still sounds of live fire.

All cameras (or, we found out later, almost all) were confiscated from the activists as part of their intake at the Ashdod holding facility, and no media was allowed to speak to them. Prior to the Mavi Marmara's arrival, Israel had invited several journalists to observe the operation (codenamed Operation Sea Breeze) from Israeli vessels. However, these journalists were not allowed to share their observations due to a gag order.

The press was dying for information, as was I. I called my contacts, who provided me with almost no additional information. I called an activist friend of mine in Ramallah and when he picked up the phone, still sounding groggy, I said right away, "Do you know anything?"
"About what?" he responded.
"Are you kidding me?"
"Well I just woke up. Why? Did something happen?"
"Jesus look at the news."
He turned on his tv and flipped through the channels.
"There's nothing...nope...I don't see anything."
I apprised him of the situation and he promised to get back to me if he had more information. The next day, there was a "demonstration" in Ramallah, wherein a dozen or less activists held signs like "Pirates of the Mediterranean" and spoke to reporters about freeing Gaza. The reporters were tenfold more numerous than the demonstrators, which shows how desperate the press was to get anything, anything at all, to show.

The Light Shines On

Over the next fews days, videos galore came to light, along with commentaries about their validity. There was edited video, audio, and still photographs. Journalists on various sides of the issue cricitized anyone on the other side who had obviously edited the information, claiming it was a coverup.

A video emerged of Israeli soldiers on the deck of the Mavi Marmara, with rifles in hand. It looked like the sun had just come up. This contradicted the army's earlier claim that they had not had rifles at all, but also contradicted the activits' claim that they had begun shooting from the air, which was they became violent in return. So why are these Israeli soldiers standing calmly on the ship with rifles in hand, and nobody is fighting them?

There was audio clip of an Israeli seaman requesting by radio that the Mavi Marmara reroute to Ashdod, the nearest Israeli port, instead of attempting to reach Gaza. Someone from the other side responded, "Shut up, go back to Aushwitz." But then blogger Max Blumenthal pointed out that this clip was clearly edited and in fact included a photo from another video clip where nothing of the kind was said. Both clips were published on youtube by the IDF press office. When the IDF was pressed about the discrepancy, they responded that they did in fact edit the clip, but only for clarity. They also admitted that as it was recorded from an open line, anybody, on any ship, could have said it.

Reuters even got heat for publishing edited photos taken by the activists aboard the ship. In the original photos, you can see an activist holding a knife and standing over two injured soldiers, pool of blood and everything. Reuters edited the photo so that it included only one injured soldier (the least bloody of the two), no knife, and no blood pool.

The IDF also uploaded several videos of the activists attacking the soldiers. The activists' responses were usually that they had the right to defend the ship. The issue that the raid happened in international waters also featured prominently.

The Videos

The Interviews

After people began to be released (ie deported) from the temporary holding facility in Ashdod, interviews trickled out to the rest of the world.

Here is a clip with several interviews of different passengers, but unfortunately I am unable to embed it.

There were of course a gazillion more interviews, but all the ones I'm currently finding are either with people who were on other ships (where the violence was minimal and nobody was killed) or are total nutjobs and not worth listening to.

What I Think

Basically, what I can piece together from what I've seen and read, is that the Israeli navy first attempted to board the Mavi Marmara from the sea, but was rebuked by the passengers throwing things and spraying water. The soldiers then boarded the ship from the air, sliding down ropes from helicopters. Eyewitnesses and video footage agree that the activists attacked the soldiers immediately when they reached the deck of the ship. At least three were taken inside the ship ("taken hostage" say Israel's supporters, "taken into protective custody" say the activists). The next round of soldiers who came down from the helicopters was larger and they came down shooting live ammunition.

What is amazing here is that all of the 9 people reported dead were Turkish nationals, one with dual U.S. citizenship. Let's say for fun that the soldiers were told before the operation that they were to put the hurt on the Turks aboard the ship. Even in such a case, how would they have known which people were Turkish, especially in such a melee? What seems more likely to me is that, in an effort to save themselves and their fellow soldiers, they shot at whoever was being the most violent. While its true that Israel's claims that the IHH are a secret terrorist organization lack evidence, I can think of few reasons that only Turks were killed in the raid. There were a dozen nationalities on that ship. In this interview, a witness aboard the ship said, when asked how the Israelis boarded the ship, "The main boarding of the ship was by the helicopters and by sea, but the first attempt of the helicopter attack, or descent- the Turkish Resistance, I can say, grabbed four Israeli army and took them down."

Now, as to my opinion on where the fault lies. Firstly, there was no need for Israel to board the ship in the first place. Whether or not I think the siege on Gaza is right or the flotilla is right is not the issue. If Israel wanted to divert the ship to Ashdod using peaceful means, it could have. The propellor could have been disabled and the ship towed to Ashdod, without the soldiers ever boarding the Mavi Marmara, and thus avoiding the whole disgraceful nightmare. There was some jibber-jabber from the government press office that this type of ship is too big for such a maneuver, but my government contacts (who remain anonymous for obvious reasons) tell me that is completely untrue. Furthermore, the general consensus regarding why such a poor decision was made is that military minds only know how to design military solutions- a nod to Israel's current Minister of Defense- Ehud Barak- former general and Army Chief of Staff.

On the other side of the coin, let's take into account the actions of the Mavi Marmara's activists. They do not deny that they attacked the soldiers, saying it was their right to defend the ship. But what if they had just sat down? The same result would have been reached- that their ship would have been rerouted to Ashdod, their cargo unloaded for inspection, and themselves deported to their countries of origin- only nobody would have died. But maybe that wasn't preferable to them. Several media reports remarked that some of the Muslim activists were preparing for martyrdom.

One woman in this clip says, "We are now waiting for one of two good things- either to achieve martyrdom, or to reach Gaza." Another interviewee in this clip said, when asked if he had been subject to torture during his detainment, "No, unfortunately not." The one Turkish-American national who was killed kept a diary aboard the ship, the last words of which were reportedly, "Only a short time left before martydrom."

The Rachel Corrie

On Saturday, June 5, the Rachel Corrie (named after slain Gaza activist) was boarded by the Israeli navy. This time the activists did sit down, the soldiers met with the captain, and the activists agree to comply.

The passengers disembarked at Ashdod without incident.

This group was led by Mairead McGuire, a Nobel Peace Prize recipient. The Israeli coverage of this event included a full-page photo on the front page of Yediot Ahronot of an Israeli soldier offering McGuire his hand to help her disembark, which she took graciously. The caption was, "This is what a real peace activist looks like."


In line with the amount of attention paid to the "Go back to Aushwitz" comment was a similar yet, really if you think about it, completely irrelevant incident. Helen Thomas had been a White House correspondent for Hearst news for 57 years, I do believe the longest term ever for this job. On May 27, as the flotilla was very publicly on its way to Gaza, someone asked Thomas to comment on Israel. She said, "Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine." And to the question, "Where should they go?" she answered, "Go Poland, Germany."

Much, unfortunately, was made of this statement. Clearly it was in bad taste, but because of the timing, it was somehow used to confirm that exhausted line of Israel's reasoning that says everyone is against them. Ten days later Thomas hastily retired.

Naturally there was also a huge media mess regarding Israel's ties with Turkey. They had, before this incident, had a very good relationship, although it had declined slightly in the last few year as PM Erdogan began re-Islamizing the state and distancing himself from Israel. Turkey recalled its ambassador to Israel after the flotilla raid and proceeded to make vague threats that it then retracted. Ergodan reportedly threatened to personally accompany a new aid flotilla that would be escorted by the Turkish Navy. Turkey's foreign minister later retracted that statement.

Iran's Ahmedinejad also threatened to send an aid convey with a military escort but denied Israel the conundrum of whether to kill him by stating he would not personally be aboard the ship. No more has been heard about this threat.

Numerous concerts have been cancelled, for example the Klaxons, Gorillaz, and the Pixies.

Finally, I leave you with this:

(For the record, I find it distasteful and unhelpful, but it provides a comment on the issue.)


Anonymous said...

It seems a bit off to argue "Israel shouldn't have boarded, but the occupants of the ship shouldn't have resisted." Would you say the same about any other illegal boarding of a ship? For a silly extreme example, if North Korean soldiers boarded a US Carrier (in international waters near Korea), should the US soldiers just sit down and let them do whatever they want?

The only real difference between the silly extreme scenario and the one that actually happened is that the owners of the invaded boat didn't have the power to resist successfully. But suggesting that anyone who is weaker should just surrender to whatever a stronger group wants is pretty distasteful.

(Well, there is also one other difference - the people boarding the boat have less justification to do so when the people on the boat don't have the power to resist! There's no threat to be removed.)

HRH said...

I would not say the same for any other illegal boarding of a ship because that would be generalizing. In this specific circumstance, the smarter move would have been to peacefully resist, as Mairead McGuire's group did.

Weaker groups should resist in a way that is successful for them, given whatever their circumstances are.