The Gaza Flotilla Aftermath

Jun 2, 2010 | AIJAC staff

Update from AIJAC

June 2, 2010
Number 06/10 #01

With the intensive coverage in the media and the fact-sheet, with video links, AIJAC put out yesterday (which is also available on our website), this Update will not attempt to re-hash the known facts and background to the Israeli raid on Monday on a flotilla trying to break the blockade of Gaza, which tragically left 9 people dead. Instead the focus will be on the aftermath and the potential fallout.

First up, we offer an opinion piece on the Israeli raid from Leslie Gelb, the Eminence Grise of American foreign policy specialists, with a long history of senior roles in government and as head of the important Council on Foreign Relations. He argues that Israel was fully justified in the actions it took, even if it mishandled the boarding. But more importantly, he makes the case that the “highly selective” international outrage against Israel leaves the ball in America’s court to improve the situation vis-a-vis Gaza and he offers a concrete suggestion. For all the details, CLICK HERE.

Next up are Matthew Levitt, David Makovsky, and Jeffrey White, all of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who offer a long and wide-ranging survey of the aftermath of the flotilla tragedy in terms of its impact on Hamas, on Israel’s future policy toward Gaza, on the role of Turkey and on US-Israel relations. On the first point, they argue convincingly that the outcome has certainly been a victory for Hamas and therefore a defeat for the PA. They also demonstrate close ties between the flotilla organisers and Hamas which contributed to this outcome, and predict further efforts to undermine Israel’s blockade of Gaza. For the rest of this important analysis,
CLICK HERE. On a related note, Jeffrey Goldberg has some comments on how Egypt and the Palestinian Authority likely see recent events.

Finally, David Makovsky had an additional piece dealing specifically with the increasing calls for Israel to simply end its blockade of Gaza, and explaining why this would be a bad idea. He points out that contrary to much comment, the blockade has been reasonably effective, reducing Palestinian public support for Hamas over time, and  contributing to an end to the situation where Hamas was firing rockets of increasingly longer range at more and more Israeli towns. He also discusses Israel’s silent partnership with Egypt in the blockade, the adequacy of current supplies coming into Gaza, and the dangers of normalising Hamas before it renounces violence and recognises Israel. For his complete argument, CLICK HERE.

Readers may also be interested in:

Israel Was Right

by Leslie H. Gelb 

The Daily Beast, May 31, 2010

Israel had every right under international law to stop and board ships bound for the Gaza war zone late Sunday. Only knee-jerk left-wingers and the usual legion of poseurs around the world would dispute this. And it is pretty clear that this “humanitarian” flotilla headed for Gaza aimed to provoke a confrontation with Israel. Various representatives of the Free Gaza Movement, one of the main organizers of this deadly extravaganza, have let it slip throughout Monday that their intention was every bit as much “to break” Israel’s blockade of Gaza as to deliver the relief goods.

The Israeli commandos who stormed the ship, where fighting erupted, badly mishandled the situation. But theirs was a mistake in pursuit of a legal goal, not a war crime. And as for calls for international investigations, they represent the usual hypocritical nonsense that will go nowhere. Except for those who routinely fool themselves about the judiciousness and effectiveness of action by the United Nations or the European Union, everyone understands their “investigations” will amount to nothing. Only the United States might do something useful—if the White House would only seize quickly the practical solution staring it in the face.

Israel has every right to protect itself under international law, including by blockades in international waters.

Regarding international law, blockades are quite legal. The United States and Britain were at war with Germany and Japan and blockaded them. I can’t remember international lawyers saying those blockades were illegal—even though they took place on the high seas in international waters. There would be a general violation only if the hostile actions against the ships took place in waters under the jurisdiction of another sovereign state. Thus, for example, if the Israelis stopped the ships in Egyptian waters, that would have been a violation.

On a more tactical level, violations could occur if the force used to block and board were “disproportionate” to the circumstances. Those friendly to Gaza aboard the ship claim disproportionality, but this is not supported by the video available. In any event, and as a practical matter, no one is going to be able to prove exactly what happened on that ship Sunday night. Nonetheless, the overriding facts remain that Gazan leaders proclaim their goal is to destroy Israel, have tried for years to do so by missile attacks and terrorism, and that Israel has every right to protect itself under international law, including by blockades in international waters.

As for what the planners of this “humanitarian” flotilla had in mind, just listen to what the leaders of this enterprise have been saying. Greta Berlin, a leader of the pro-Palestinian Free Gaza Movement, told The New York Times that the Israeli claim that the people aboard the ship intended violence was preposterous. She argued that it was inconceivable that the civilian passengers on board would have been “waiting up to fire on the Israeli military, with all its might.” By that keen logic, no Palestinian ever would have fired upon a militarily superior Israeli. We seem to know otherwise.

Or listen to Huwaida Arraf, one of the Free Gaza Movement leaders. She said on Sunday before the incident that the boats would steam forward to Gaza “until they either disable our boats or jump on board.” How on earth did she expect that strategy would not lead to violence?

On what remains of the old Lehrer News Hour, Adam Shapiro, another Free Gaza guy, said Monday night that the flotilla aimed to break the blockade as well as deliver aid. Well, of course, no one asked him how he thought the blockade would be broken without violence. It couldn’t—unless the flotilla escaped detection. And with six ships in the flotilla, that was highly unlikely.

So, the Free guys and gals achieved their real purpose—to provoke the Israelis, hope they did stupid things (which they did by boarding the ship with commandos who weren’t prepared to do this job), and stirred international outrage.

Ah, the international outrage. Turks, French, all leaders large and small condemned Israel and called for international commissions. Ban Ki-Moon, the United Nations Secretary-General, said he was “shocked” by the attack. He condemned the violence, and added: “It is vital that there is a full investigation to determine exactly how this bloodshed took place. I believe Israel must urgently provide a full explanation.”

Well, where was all that international outrage and demand for explanations and retribution when the North Koreans sunk a South Korean ship? Where was it when the Gazans attacked Israel? Where, when Afghan men flogged their women for not wearing veils? Where, when Saudi Arabia funds terrorists around the world? This international outrage is highly selective, isn’t it? The one consolation is that the international community, such as it has become, doesn’t get anything of value done.

Which puts matters in the American lap, as usual. There is a reasonable solution to this terrible dilemma: The Gazan people are in need of food and medicine, and Israel must protect itself against Gazan terrorists. President Obama should propose this simple arrangement: First, those wishing to bring humanitarian aid to Gaza agree to land aircraft, dock ships, and use land checkpoints all reasonably designated by Israel for inspection of contents. Second, Israel agrees to inspect cargoes within two to three days, and allow all humanitarian goods to proceed to Gaza immediately.

The United States surely has the power to accomplish this. It would prevent much needless killing and haggling—and phony posturing around the world. And if one or both sides rejected the deal, then that one, or the both of them, are on their own.

Leslie H. Gelb, a former New York Times columnist and senior government official, is author of Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy (HarperCollins 2009), a book that shows how to think about and use power in the 21st century. He is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.

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Fallout from the Gaza Flotilla Tragedy

By Matthew Levitt, David Makovsky, and Jeffrey White

Policy Watch #1662
June 1, 2010

The Gaza flotilla tragedy has given Hamas at least a short-term political boost while undercutting the sea blockade of Gaza, fitting well with the agenda of the flotilla’s organizers, Turkey’s Humanitarian Relief Fund. At the same time, the incident — to the extent that the details are known — has shown that U.S.-Israel relations have proven resilient in the face of the first major international incident since the two parties worked to mend relations following the Jerusalem building-permit crisis in March.

Impact on Hamas

In the short term, Hamas will benefit politically from its role as a supporter of the flotilla, its public calls for Israel to not interfere with the effort to break the blockade, and the burnishing of its fading “resistance” credentials. Ismail Haniyah set up the situation as a win-win for Hamas in his May 29 speech declaring that it was a victory if the flotilla got through or if Israel stopped it. The bloody outcome only increased the size of the victory for Hamas. Previously, Hamas had launched a broad media campaign to focus attention on the flotilla and warn of the possibility of an Israeli action against it. Since the incident, Hamas media organs have given extensive coverage to it, prominently depicting the role and actions of Hamas officials. Hamas’s public role in the events makes the Palestinian Authority (PA) look bad by comparison. For the most part, Hamas has considerably trailed the PA in support among Palestinians, so Hamas is hoping the incident will give it at least a temporary boost. It should be pointed out that even the sympathy boost that Hamas garnered after the 2008-2009 Gaza war evaporated in just two months.

The Gaza flotilla interdiction incident cannot be seen as other than a major victory for Hamas. The outcome, the images, and the reflexive condemnation of the action by much of the world are all of direct benefit to Hamas and to the detriment of its opponents — especially Israel, but the PA as well. Hamas will see immediate political gains as well as potential long-term practical benefits for its rule in Gaza.

Future of the Sea Blockade

Although the incident did not affect Israel’s military capability to maintain the blockade, it is going to be much more difficult for Israel to enforce controls at sea. Additional attempts to break the sea blockade are likely, and they may include increased foreign support — more ships, more people — and the potential for more violence and more embarrassment for Israel. Hamas-associated sources report that an effort to send another flotilla is already underway. In effect, this would amount to the creation of a “maritime front” against Israel.

According to the Financial Times, Gaza supermarkets are so well stocked that merchants are complaining that prices of consumer goods are being forced down. Nevertheless, the flotilla tragedy will reinforce calls to lift Israel’s sea blockade and its strict controls on land shipments to Gaza. Israel is likely to oppose humanitarian exceptions to the sea blockade, however. In the 1990s, what started out as symbolic shipments organized by politically motivated groups claiming a humanitarian agenda turned into a significant weakening of international sanctions against Libya and Iraq; in the latter case, that sanctions weakening led to significant smuggling of militarily useful items. Were uninspected ships able to unload in Gaza, it would be difficult to prevent large amounts of heavy weaponry from being imported by Hamas, which does not recognize Israel’s right to exist and has more than amply demonstrated that it will use any weapons that come into its possession.

To be sure, Hamas can already smuggle some powerful weapons through tunnels; for example, its operatives have fired a Fajr rocket with a twenty-seven-mile radius. But Israel’s ally in supporting the boycott of weapons to Hamas has been Egypt, which has done much better recently at impeding the smuggling of weapons through tunnels into Gaza. Cairo was willing to withstand protests at its embassies in other Arab countries during the 2008-2009 Gaza war, refusing to open its Rafah border crossing to Hamas. (Egypt opened the Rafah crossing today, but this might be as short-lived as the other occasions Cairo has opened it for humanitarian reasons.) Critics have yet to come forward with an alternative to the Israeli sea blockade and the strict land controls imposed by both Egypt and Israel.

If the blockade seriously erodes, Hamas’s political position in Gaza will be enhanced, its ability to rule improved, and its ability to acquire heavy arms in large quantities greatly increased. The group will have reversed the dynamic of the increasingly difficult situation it has found itself in since the December 2008-January 2009 Operation Cast Lead.

The Flotilla Organizers

Among the groups that organized the aid flotilla to Gaza is a charity headquartered in Turkey called the Humanitarian Relief Fund (“Insani Yardim Vakfi” in Turkish, or IHH). IHH was established in 1992 and officially registered in Istanbul in 1995. A French intelligence report concluded that in the mid-1990s, IHH president Bulent Yildrim was directly involved in “recruit[ing] veteran soldiers in anticipation of the coming holy war [jihad]. In particular, some men were sent into war zones in Muslim countries in order to acquire combat experience.” Foreshadowing IHH’s role in this weekend’s aid flotilla to Gaza, the French report noted that IHH provided financial support “as well as caches of firearms, knives, and pre-fabricated explosives” in an effort to obtain “political support from these countries.” IHH phone records in Istanbul reportedly included repeated telephone calls in 1996 to an al-Qaeda guesthouse in Italy and to North African terrorists active in Europe.

In addition, a 1996 CIA report on terrorist abuse of charities, declassified after the September 11 attacks, documented IHH as a charity with ties to “Iran and Algerian groups.” According to the report, the director of the IHH office in Sarajevo “has been linked to Iranian operatives.” The report described “the terrorist-related activities and linkages” of fifteen selected “Islamic NGOs,” noting that “individuals connected to some of these NGOs have plotted to kidnap or kill U.S. personnel.” And according to French court documents, IHH was the subject of a Turkish criminal investigation in late 1997 when sources revealed that leaders of the group were purchasing automatic weapons from other regional Islamist militant groups. Based on an analysis of seized IHH documents, Turkish authorities concluded that “detained members of IHH were going to fight in Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Chechnya.”

IHH is a member of the “Union of Good” (Itelaf al-Khair, also known as the “Charity Coalition”). According to Palestinian intelligence, this organization “is considered — with regard to material support — one of the biggest Hamas supporters.” Israel outlawed the Union of Good in February 2002, and the United States named it a specially designated global terrorist entity in November 2008. According to the U.S. Treasury Department, the Union of Good was created by the Hamas leadership “in order to facilitate the transfer of funds to Hamas.” Intelligence underpinning the U.S. designation noted that the group “facilitates the transfer of tens of millions of dollars a year to Hamas-managed associations.” It also “acts as a broker for Hamas by facilitating financial transfers between a web of charitable organizations…and Hamas-controlled organizations in the West Bank and Gaza.”

The involvement of a Union of Good member in the aid flotilla should not come as a surprise. According to statements issued by the U.S. government, the primary purpose behind the founding of the Union of Good by Hamas leaders was “to strengthen Hamas’ political and military position in the West Bank and Gaza, including by: (i) diverting charitable donations to support Hamas members and the families of terrorist operatives; and (ii) dispensing social welfare and other charitable services on behalf of Hamas.”

This episode has severely damaged ties between Turkey and Israel for the foreseeable future. Turkish-Israeli ties have been on a downhill trajectory since the Justice and Development Party (AKP) acquired power in 2002. While some dismissed the AKP’s sharp criticism of Israeli policies as domestic politicking, its rhetoric served as the litmus test of what lay ahead. AKP officials have dubbed Israel a “pirate state,” and a “terrorist state,” adding that Turkish-Israeli relations will not be revived unless Israel recognizes Hamas and lifts the sanctions on Gaza. This means that Turkey cannot be expected to act as a mediator between Israel and its neighbours, a role some had suggested Ankara could play under the AKP.

U.S.-Israel Relations

The Obama administration’s efforts during the past couple months to reach out to the Netanyahu government were derided by many as a “charm offensive” or public relations move. Yet there is nothing like a crisis to put the U.S.-Israeli relationship to a genuine test. The fact is the administration did not rush to judgment on the flotilla tragedy, seeing it as a security-related issue. A White House statement yesterday made clear that the United States would not jump on a bandwagon condemning Israel. It called for all the facts to be known before forming any judgment. And a subsequent State Department release made clear that Israel — not, implicitly, the international community — needed to launch an investigation. The statements by both the Obama administration and the president of the UN Security Council fell short of what was wanted by Turkey and Arab states. An international investigation was not mentioned, so avoiding a repeat of the controversial Goldstone Commission. By diluting the UN statement, the Obama administration was trying to protect the current proximity talks of Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell.

The United States seems to understand the double standard at work in the UN Security Council. During the three years between Israel’s August 2005 withdrawal from Gaza and Operation Cast Lead, Hamas fired 3,335 rockets at Israeli towns and cities, but the Security Council never met once to discuss these attacks. When an international team concluded that North Korea sank a South Korean ship, the Security Council members consulted at great length about how to evaluate the reports and what response would be appropriate. Yet when Israel is accused, the Security Council rushes into action even before full information is available.

Matthew Levitt is director of The Washington Institute’s Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence. David Makovsky is the Ziegler distinguished fellow and director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at the Institute. Jeffrey White is a defense fellow at the Institute.

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Gaza Flotilla: Why the Blockade Makes Sense for Israel

By David Makovsky
Christian Science Monitor
June 1, 2010

The activists aboard the Gaza flotilla that was raided by Israeli security forces Monday may have believed that breaking the Gaza blockade was at its core forcing Israel to address an issue the activists see as moral blindness. Yet the situation is far more complex than they would like people to believe.

The story of the flotilla crisis begins from the time Israel withdrew from Gaza in August 2005. Israelis were told that if they stopped occupying foreign land, they would be more secure.

Between their withdrawal and the Gaza war of December 2008, however, Israeli citizens absorbed 3,335 rockets aimed at their homes. Their border towns became uninhabitable, as mothers had 45 seconds to hear a siren, gather their kids, and pray they would make it to a shelter.

Some of the rockets were Iranian-made Grad rockets and others were Fajr-3s that had a 27-mile range. The range of the rockets grew with each passing month after Israeli forces left. Moreover, since Israel withdrew from Gaza, it no longer controlled the Egyptian-Gazan border, where all of the rocket smuggling was taking place.

There was never a single UN Security Council session to discuss those attacks.

That’s why Israel insisted on a naval blockade of the Gaza Strip: It was the only way to curb the Palestinian rocket attacks on its people.

While critics like to say that Israel retains forms of air and sea control, it ceded the area that counted in the withdrawal and exposed its citizens to rocket attacks. The lessons from that pullout will make a potential withdrawal from the West Bank much harder. There will be those who say, “If you didn’t like the book, why would you see the movie?”

Now, in the wake of the confrontation between the flotilla and Israeli forces, the international community is calling on Israel to lift the blockade.

Could Hamas, the radical militant organization that effectively rules Gaza, be trusted to adhere to a lifting of the blockade?

While much has been made of the fact that Israel does not talk to Hamas (both Jerusalem and Washington deem it a terrorist organization), it is also true that Hamas has no interest in talking to Israel.

Hamas does not recognize Israel at any size — even the area of a telephone booth on a Tel Aviv beach. Just last week in Damascus, Syria, PBS talk show host Charlie Rose kept asking Hamas leader Khaled Meshal if he would accept Israel if it withdrew to the pre-1967 borders; Mr. Meshal refused to answer.

He indicated that Israel should agree to the right of millions of Palestinians to relocate in Israel and not just a new Palestinian state, and then this should be put forward to a referendum of all of the world’s Palestinians (not just the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza), and then who knows. Not much hope there.

So who would ensure that a lifted blockade from Gaza would not permit more rockets to come into Gaza? No countries have volunteered to be peace enforcers on Gaza’s borders.

The European Union agreed to monitor a crossing point in Rafah, which is easier than enforcement as it requires no robust military presence but only computers — proverbial pencils — to issue reports.

Yet, even this is a pale challenge to the 12-kilometer southern border with Egypt, where smuggling has occurred. Yet, even at the Rafah crossing alone, the EU monitors repeatedly fled the scene when the going got rough during the past few years.

Complicating the situation further is the fact that reporting does not suggest that Gaza is on the verge of catastrophe. This is what the Financial Times‘s Tobias Buck wrote from Rafah just last week, alluding to the tunnel smuggling: “[T]he prices of many smuggled goods have fallen in recent months, thanks to a supply glut that is on striking displays across the [Gaza] Strip.”

The tunnel smuggling, Mr. Buck writes, has “become so efficient that shops all over Gaza are bursting with goods. Branded products such as Coca-cola, Nescafe, Snickers and Heinz ketchup — long absent as a result of the Israeli blockade — are both cheap and widely available.”

This suggests that the blockade has certainly not led to Gaza being on the brink of starvation.

The unspoken argument for the blockade is that it has been effective. In the past two years, Hamas leadership continually trails the popularity of the Palestinian Authority and Fatah in the West Bank as people understand that Hamas has not been able to declare business as usual.

Moreover, Israel has a silent partner in supporting the blockade: Egypt. Though Egypt announced a lifting of the blockade today, past gestures by the Mubarak government suggest this move will be equally short-lived. Cairo was willing to withstand protests at its embassies in the Arab world during the 2008-09 Gaza war, but still refused to open up its Rafah border crossing to Hamas.

While there is probably an argument to be made that the terms of the blockade should be adjusted at least somewhat to minimize social pain and cope with the reality of the tunnels, this should not be confused with normalizing the role of Hamas itself.

The Obama administration has reiterated criteria that the United States, United Nations, EU, and Russia established as a prerequisite for Hamas to play a constructive role: disavow violence, accept Israel, and adhere to previous agreements.

President Obama had made clear that the onus is on Hamas to change its ways before it becomes a legitimate peace partner. It has accepted the logic that an unreconstructed Hamas will spoil peace talks more from the inside rather than the outside, as Obama pursues a policy of seeking success in George Mitchell’s West Bank proximity talks.

There is a reason for this view. Hamas has made clear that its condition for joining a united Palestinian government is abandoning peace talks with Israel and agreeing at best to some form of a cease-fire in return for many concessions that they know Israel cannot accept.

Like the Gaza flotilla, solving the issue of Gaza and Hamas does not look like smooth sailing.

David Makovsky is the Ziegler distinguished fellow and director of The Washington Institute’s Project on the Middle East Peace Process.

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