June 9, 2010
Number 06/10 #03
This Update looks at a much-remarked element of the recent crisis over the Gaza Flotilla, the role of Turkey before and after the violent confrontation of May 31. It also includes the most complete summary of what is known about the details of that confrontation that we have yet seen.
First up is noted German editor and scholar Josef Joffe, who tries to put Turkey’s behaviour in respect to the flotilla into a larger perspective related to Turkey’s regional goals. In essence, he argues, Turkey sees a power vacuum in the Middle East, and is attempting to pick fights with Israel, including in this case, as a “rallying cry to the region.”He puts forward the view that Israel essentially fell into a Turkish trap in this whole affair. For the rest of what he has to say, CLICK HERE. Some similar views about Turkey’ move toward regional assertion come from experts interviewed in this report, while American foreign policy pundit Walter Russell Mead had some additional thoughts on Turkey’s changing relationship with the US here.
Next up is prolific Israeli scholar Barry Rubin, who happens to be something of an expert on Turkish-Israeli relations, and has taught and researched for extended periods in Turkey. Here he writes at length about the changes in Turkish policy toward Israel and the West, which he says, date back well before the current incident or the Gaza War of 2008-2009, but are inherent to the world view of the ruling AKP party. Rubin also takes the US Obama Administration and other Western governments to task for continuing to misunderstand the changing alignment of Turkey. Rubin has a great deal more to say based clearly on detailed knowledge of and contacts in Turkey, and to read it all, CLICK HERE. Another Israeli scholar and expert on Turkey, Professor Efraim Inbar, had a piece about Turkey’s changing orientations in today’s Australian, which was in turn based on a longer paper you can read here. Inbar will be visiting Australia over the next week.
Finally, Jeffrey White, a long-serving veteran of the US Defence Intelligence Agency now at the Washington Institute for Near East policy, summarises what is known about the Mavi Marmara clash which let to 9 deaths. He details the forces and preparations on both sides, and analyses the important contrasting goals – the small core of demonstrators planning a military-style ambush, versus Israeli forces approaching the matter principally as one of crowd control. As noted above, this is the most comprehensive review of the details of the clash that is currently publicly available, and it comes from an experienced and knowledgeable military analyst. For White’s complete examination of the Mavi Marmara incident, CLICK HERE.
Readers may also be interested in:
- Interesting editorials on Turkey’s responsibility for the Gaza flotilla incident from the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal.
- Some more analysis of Turkey’s changing orientation from Washington Institute Turkey expert Soner Cagaptay, here and here.
- More comment on Turkey’s role from military historian Victor Davis Hansen.
- Daniel Pipes suggests that Turkey has over reached, to its detriment.
- New allegations about doctoring of two photographs related to the Mavi Marmara confrontation by Reuters.
- Another good general source of information and news about the Gaza situation is this site: www.talkgaza.com.
- Some new comment on the Gaza flotilla and aftermath from AIJAC’s Dr. Colin Rubenstein, in the New Zealand Herald, Bren Carlill, in the Australian, and Daniel Meyerovitz-Katz, also in the Australian.
By Josef Joffe
Financial Times, June 6 2010 19:29
In the Middle East nothing is ever what it seems. We have heard that the Gaza flotilla was on a humanitarian mission. Well, five of the six ships were, unloading their cargo in the Israeli port of Ashdod, but the Mavi Marmara was not, provoking an Israeli assault.
This attack was “contrary to international law”, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s prime minister, proclaimed. But in a state of war, as exists between Hamas-ruled Gaza and Israel, a blockade is not exactly a crime. Egypt has been sealing off Gaza by land and nobody has ever accused Cairo of breaching any conventions.
It was “state terrorism”, said Mr Erdogan. Yet terrorists do not dispatch solicitous messages, as Israel did when it radioed that it “approves the delivery of humanitarian supplies and invites you to enter the Ashdod port, after which you can return to your home ports”.
Terrorists come to kill. The Israelis came with paintballs. The troops, as a tape released by the Israel Defence Forces shows, clearly thought they were under fire. “Real weapons, real guns?” cries out one commando. “Yes, yes, real weapons!”
Was the Israeli response “disproportionate”, as President Nicolas Sarkozy of France claimed? That nine people died seems to deliver a resounding yes. But Israel’s action was incompetent, not heinous. The Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 protects civilians but also says that if they are “engaged in activities hostile to the security of the state”, they shall not enjoy “such rights and privileges”.
Humanitarians do not come armed with rods and slingshots. The Turkish charity that organised the foray, Insani Yardim Vakfi (better known by its German acronym IHH), is viewed with suspicion by too many intelligence services to qualify as the friendly aid outfit as which it poses.
But let us look beyond the Mavi Marmara. Though Israelis and Palestinians get most of the limelight, much of the script is written elsewhere. The newest entrant in the larger drama is Turkey, where the flotilla was financed and put to sea. Ankara’s fierce response to the incident was a rallying cry to the region.
Next to Iran, Nato member Turkey is now the biggest headache for the west. With Egypt sinking into torpor and Riyadh firmly ensconced on the fence between Washington and Tehran, Turkey has seen the leadership of the region up for grabs – and is going for it. It has drawn Syria into its orbit and has reached a nuclear deal with Iran, its rival for hegemony.
What better way to pursue this end than to lead a crusade against the Jewish state? Going after the “Little Satan” is the card that trumps them all, and it embarrasses the “Great Satan” to boot. The real game is about dominance at the expense of America, which US President Barack Obama has yet to grasp. Neither has Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister. Sailing into the Turkish trap was a blunder worthy of General Custer at Little Big Horn.
The clumsy execution damages the IDF’s reputation. Why did those commandos abseil down on to a deck swarming with well-prepared defenders? Why not use water cannon and teargas – any kind of non-lethal force – if board you must? Check the videos and you see those “civilians” doing just the right thing: tying the abseil ropes to the hull, forcing the pilots to forgo the advantage of a rapid, intimidating drop. To disable the Mavi Marmara’s screw and rudder would have killed no one but would have kept her from breaking the blockade.
Israel has Turkish guile and its own folly to thank for this tragedy. Israel must learn, as it should have after the Lebanon war of 2006 and the Gaza war of 2009, that for it to kill civilians is precisely what its enemies want. The US must learn that the real contest is between itself, Turkey and Iran. It is now up against both.
The arena extends from Ankara to Kabul, and the issue is who shall be umpire. Mr Obama thinks that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the source of all trouble. If it were, Iran would not be trying to develop nuclear weapons and Turkey would not be seeking mastery over its ancient domain. Nor were Palestinians on the mind of the previous claimants to hegemony – from Nasser’s Egypt to Saddam’s Iraq. Remember that the deadliest and longest war in the region was between Iraq and Iran.
Terror in Pakistan, Iraq, Turkey and Afghanistan is not designed to uproot Jewish settlements. It is not Israel that motivates Syria’s recolonisation of Lebanon. Turkey and Iran are not vying for control so as to promote a two-state solution.
Palestine has got nothing to do with it. But it shares a tragic fate with Israel. Whenever the two start talking, somebody will set a trap or throw a bomb. To borrow from Churchill: in the Middle East, it is easier to war-war than to jaw-jaw.
The writer is editor of Die Zeit, a senior fellow at Stanford’s Institute for International Studies and Abramowitz fellow of the Hoover Institution
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Posted: 06 Jun 2010 01:58 PM PDT
This article is based on one commissioned and published by PajamasMedia. I have added additional material to this more extensive version. Turkish readers: see a special note to you at the end.
By Barry Rubin
Why have Israel-Turkey relations gone from alliance to what seems to be the verge of war?
The foolish think that the breakdown is due to the recent Gaza flotilla crisis. The merely naive attribute the collapse to the December 2008-January 2009 Israel-Hamas war in the Gaza Strip.
Such conclusions are totally misleading. It was already clear—and in private every Israeli expert dealing seriously with Turkey said so—well over two years ago. For example, the Justice and Development (AK) party government did not permit a single new military contract with Israel since it took office. The special relationship was over. And the cause was the election in Turkey of an Islamist government.
After all, Turkey needed Israel as an ally when a secular government in Ankara regarded Iran, Syria, and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq as the main threats. Once there was a government which regarded Iran and Syria as its closest allies, Israel became a perceived enemy.
When the Turkish armed forces were an important part of the regime, they promoted the alliance because they saw Israel as a good source for military equipment and an ally against Islamists and radical Arab regimes. But once the army was to be suppressed by those who hated it because of the military’s secularism and feared it as the guardian of the republican system it sought to dismantle, the generals’ wishes were a matter of no concern and depriving them of foreign allies was a priority of the AK party government.
(Incidentally, how secure is the high-level military technology sold by the United States and Israel to Turkey, and will it end up in the hands of Russia, Syria, and Iran? Presumably the Turkish army is still reliable on such matters but is that certain and for how long?)
And when Turkey thought it needed Israel as a way to maintain good relations with the United States, the alliance was also valuable. But once it was clear that U.S. policy would accept the AK and was none too fond of Israel, that reason for the alliance also dissolved. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced, “It’s Israel that is the principal threat to regional peace.” Not Iran, Israel.
At first, this outcome was not so obvious. The AK Party won its first election by only a narrow margin. To keep the United States and EU happy, to keep the Turkish army happy, and to cover up its Islamist sympathies, the new regime was cautious over relations with Israel. Keeping them going served as “proof” of Turkey’s moderation.
Yet as the AK majorities in election rose, the government became more confident. No longer did it stress that it was just a center-right party with family values. The regime steadily weakened the army, using EU demands for civilian power. As it repressed opposition and arrested hundreds of critics, bought up 40 percent of the media, and installed its people in the bureaucracy, the AK’s arrogance, and thus its willingness to go further and throw off its mask, grew steadily.
And then, on top of that, the regime saw that the United States would not criticize it, not press it, not even notice what the Turkish government was doing. President Barack Obama came to Turkey and praised the regime as a model of moderate Muslim democracy. Former President Bill Clinton appeared in Istanbul and, in response to questions asked by an AK party supporter, was manipulated into virtually endorsing the regime’s program without realizing it.
Earlier this year, the situation became even more absurd as Turkey moved ever closer to becoming the third state to join the Iran-Syria bloc. Syria’s state-controlled newspaper and Iranian President Ahmadinejad openly referred to Turkey’s membership in their alliance. And no one in Washington even noticed what was happening. Even when, in May, Turkish policy stabbed the United States in the back by helping Iran launch a sanctions-avoiding plan, the Obama Administration barely stirred in its sleep.
Then there is the theatrical demagoguery of Erdogan himself who threw a choreographed fit at the Davos conference because Israel’s President Shimon Peres, the mildest and most dovish of men, “offended” him. He returned home to an excited demonstration.
Bashing Israel to gain popularity and stir nationalist and religious passions is not the oldest of such tricks. It is merely a variation of doing the same historically to Jews in general. And yes it still works. Boy, does it work!
Then there’s Turkey’s new foreign minister. Ahmed Davudoglu. It’s a pity that his writings in Turkish haven’t been translated because when he writes in English Davudoglu says Turkey wants to be everyone’s friend, but in the Turkish version he makes clear that his goal is to be friends with those who hate the West. Davudoglu’s appointment completes the AK party’s conquest of the Foreign Ministry, another institution that hates Islamism.
And so with electoral victories; advancing control over Turkey’s bureaucracy, military and society; and Western complaisance, the regime has become continually bolder.
A few weeks ago, the Turkish prime minister said that Iran isn’t developing nuclear weapons, that he regards President Ahmadinejad as a friend, and that even if Iran were building nuclear bombs it has a right to do so. And still no one in Washington noticed. Turkey was not only what the Obama Administration wanted in a Muslim-majority country, it was also one of the “responsible powers,” to quote the administration’s national security strategy document, that the White House saw as necessary attendants to shore up a weak America at the Home for Aging Senile Superpowers.
The current Turkish government hates Israel because it is an Islamist regime. Note who its friends are: it cares nothing for the Lebanese people, it only backs Hizballah. It never has a kind word for the Palestinian Authority or Fatah, the Turkish government’s friend is Hamas.
Lately for the first time, however, the AK government began to run into domestic problems. The poor status of the economy, the growing discontent of many Turks with creeping Islamism in the society, and finally the election for the first time of a popular leader for the opposition party, began to give hope that next year’s elections might bring down the regime. Indeed, polls showed the AK sinking into or very close to second place. With the army neutered, elections are the only hope of getting Turkey off the road to Islamist .
Now, however, the corpses of those killed after they or their colleagues attacked Israeli soldiers will probably guarantee AK’s victory. As one Turkish columnist put it, the AK, “will sail on this wind into a third term in power.”
This is a prize well worth sacrificing Israeli trade and tourism. And the action is all the more attractive since Turkey in doing so will not have to sacrifice any Western and particularly U.S. support. By making this behavior so cheap, the U.S. government has made it inevitable.
But even that is not all. On September 12, Turkey will come to a crossroads when a referendum will be held over constitutional amendments introduced by the government. If passed, these changes will give the government control over the court system, virtually the only remaining institution it hasn’t taken over. As one Turkish analyst wrote, “This would be the end of checks [and balances] and democracy.”
In light of national solidarity and outrage over the Gaza incident, how can the government not win?
A Turkish colleague gave a good guideline for dealing with the Turkish government’s defection to the other side and march toward Islamism some time ago, an analogy most ironic given the nautical nature of the Gaza flotilla issue. It was very important, he explained, that the Turkish people not become the enemy for the West and Israel. They were, he continued, merely the passengers. The regime—the captain and the crew—was the problem.
Even within the AK party there were more moderate elements, mostly those who joined from non-Islamist center-right parties. When I hosted the Turkey-Israel parliamentary friendship committee, these were the people most eager for good relations, because they saw this alliance as a check on the more extremist forces in their own party.
But then the Gaza flotilla sailed in. Many Turks who support opposition parties see this as close to a conspiracy, and one can hardly blame them for doing so. A radical Islamist group close to the government organized this whole affair which, while nominally independent, enjoyed the Turkish government’s patronage. This flotilla was a semi-official operation by the AK-ruled state apparatus.
This campaign set up the intensification of the regime’s manipulation of the two powerful symbols in Turkey that motivate people: nationalism and Islam. This is an anti-nationalist government, dismantling the traditional traditions of Atatirk’s republic. But it has managed to wrap itself in the Turkish flag. Thus, the less than 30 percent who support the AK and would back an attempt to help Hamas has been turned into 100 percent by turning this from an Islamist into a nationalist issue.
A national hysteria has been whipped up. In huge demonstrations, Palestinian flags were waved and slogans should like: “Stop military collaboration with the Israeli army,” “Kill all the Israelis,” “Allah akbar,” “Death to the Jews,” and “Attack Israel.”
This has taken on dangerous proportions. For example, an article in the Islamist newspaper Zaman claims that Israel “ordered” the Kurdish PKK to attack a Turkish naval base. This is a blood libel. The PKK declared it would renew attacks long before the Gaza incident and the Israeli government went out of its way to declare the PKK a terrorist group years ago in order to support Turkey! Given such behavior, all Israeli tourism to Turkey is likely to end for a long time given the danger and the government might not be able to stop terror attacks on Jewish and Israeli targets in Turkey even if it wants to do so.
Even the opposition parties, persuaded or intimidated by nationalist fervor, shouted their outrage, with a unanimous vote in parliament supporting the regime’s stance. The Turkish media censored out almost everything that challenged the narrative of peace-loving demonstrators brutally attacked. Thus, Turks–largely locked into only there own media due to language–don’t have the basis to question what they are being told.
I do not mean to suggest here that Israel might not have made tactical mistakes or that the Turks don’t have a reason to feel upset at the death of nine of their nationals. But a different government in Turkey would express anger and then try to resolve the matter calmly and peacefully through some kind of compromise. Past, non-AK party governments have at times been harsh in criticizing Israel but they also had a strong incentive to resolve the crisis. This government finds the crisis useful.
The AK government had three demands: all Turks be released immediately, something Israel had already announced would happen but the regime pretended only came about due to its tough stance; there should be an international investigation; and Israel must pay compensation. Turkey’s top leaders spoke of Israel as committing “piracy” and “terrorism,” the latter term one never applies to Hamas or Hizballah.
Indeed, Erdogan said something very revealing of his true intentions. Turkey, he said, chose to side with law, peace, justice, Palestine and the Gaza Strip. In other words, this is a political alliance, theoretically with the Palestinians but actually only with his fellow Hamas Islamists.
Incidentally, I think there is one hidden price Turkey will pay for this strategy. Although its chances of getting into the EU were already quite low, a view of Turkey as extremist will put the last nail into the coffin of its candidacy succeeding. Even if European states don’t like Israel, a display of Islamic fervor in Turkey will not make them feel good.
Another is the increased antagonism in the United States which, up until now, has treated the regime uncritically. In a remarkable editorial, the Washington Post blames Erdogan. It is a signal of a significant potential rift in U.S.-Turkey relations.
Is this demagogic mobilization of nationalist and religious passions the magic weapon the AK will use to gain reelection next year? Many Turks think so and are angry at Israel for, in their eyes, helping the survival of the regime they hate.
But for the AK government to succeed in gaining a political advantage, it’s going to have to create several more crises to keep nationalist fervor stoked.
Unnoticed in the hoopla and hysteria surrounding this incident was the Turkish government’s insulting treatment of the United States, as an errant schoolboy to be bullied and punished. President Barack Obama seems to have swallowed this meekly. Davutoglu said, “We expect the United States to show solidarity with us….I am not very happy with the statements from the United States yesterday.”
Quickly, U.S statements came into line. One might ask why the United States should show solidarity with a regime that organized a massive and aggressive operation on behalf of Hamas and had just stabbed it in the back by cooking up a deal with Iran to sabotage sanctions against Israel, an ally which had supported U.S. policies and made several tough concessions at Obama’s request.
Yet such is what has become normal in these times and under this U.S. government. The message has thus been sent: The Turkish government can do anything it wants and its American counterpart won’t even squeak in protest. Indeed, in his interview with Larry King, Obama went out of his way–in a situation where it was totally unnecessary–to praise Turkey and urge that it play a central role!
He said: “I think Turkey can have a positive voice in this whole process once we’ve worked through this tragedy. And bring everybody together to figure out how can we get a two-state solution where the Palestinians and Israelis can live side by side in peace and security.” Presumably, the second sentence was meant to say that the United States would “bring everybody together” but it could be read as if he were referring to Turkey.
Ironically, Turkey’s own behavior–which no other government or even news media seems to be mentioning–runs rather counter to its protestations. Since 1993, Turkey has blockaded Armenia in support of Azerbaijan. One wonders how it would respond to a humanitarian convoy trying to cross the border and attacking Turkish soldiers. It has repeatedly sent soldiers into Iraq to attack Kurdish rebels, too, even as the incident at sea unfolded. And the regime’s human rights’ record has many spots on it.
Any idea of saving Israel-Turkey warm relations is an illusion as long as the AK party remains in power in Turkey. Any thought that Turkey can be an acceptable mediator for Israel, a country the regime loathes, with the Palestinians or Syria is ridiculous.
As long as the AK party remains in power this is only the beginning of its unfolding friction with the West. For one thing, the regime will demand that Israel be found guilty, that the United States support this verdict, and that Israel pay compensation. If not, Erdogan will go into more fits of outrage and tens of thousands of angry demonstrators will be unleashed into Turkey’s streets.
This internal battle, however, is far from over. Turkey remains enough of a democratic state that the voters can either throw out that party or so reduce its votes as to force it into a coalition where its power would be reduced and policy moderated. A good scare at the polls could also force the AK regime to resume the moderate mask, pulling back on foreign policy while continuing its effort to transform Turkey.
One of these options is the best hope for Turkey at present. For as bad as things seem, if a different party took leadership in Ankara, while the old days of a warm Turkish-Israel relationship could not return so easily, a more normal situation would prevail. In other words, Turkey’s defection is not necessarily permanent if the AK party does not remain in power for a long time.
The question now becomes: how much will this Turkish government sabotage U.S. interests before U.S.-Turkish relations go the same way? The defection of Turkey to the other side is the biggest strategic shift in the Middle East and loss for the democratic West since the Iranian revolution three decades ago. Pretending that this isn’t happening will make no difference in reality.
(A note to Turkish readers. I can hear some of you saying: You are blaming Turkey for the breakdown of relations, what about Israel’s responsibility? First, I’m not blaming Turkey but the current government. A lot of you know that’s basically true. Indeed, many of you have told me that you are really angry at Israel because you feel the situation has been successfully exploited by the regime to further its ends, which are very bad for the Turkish people and democracy. Second, I’m glad to debate over the Gaza flotilla issue with you (and have been corresponding with many Turkish friends on this issue) but before this latest event Israel has done nothing that anyone can claim has damaged Turkey or is against Turkish interests and yet the relations were already terrible.
Think also of what this is doing to your country. When martyrdom is celebrated as public funerals; when individual Turks can decide to take over the country’s international policy by choosing to attack the soldiers of another country; when Jihad replaces “peace at home, peace in the world,” is this not taking Turkey down the path that Arabs have followed for sixty years?
Will this approach bring to Turkey the dubious benefits of such “heroism” that have fallen upon Lebanon and Iraq: fanaticism, instability, intolerance, dictatorship, endless bloodshed, long-term conflict with the West; social stagnation, and financial ruin? This is precisely the kind of thing that Ataturk sought to ensure never came to Turkey.
May this dreadful prophecy never come to be.)
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (PalgraveMacmillan). His new edited books include Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict and Crisis; Guide to Islamist Movements; Conflict and Insurgency in the Middle East; The West and the Middle East (four volumes); and The Muslim Brotherhood. To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.
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June 7, 2010
Something has been lost in the heated discussion surrounding the Gaza “freedom flotilla” incident — namely, an assessment of what actually happened before and during the Israeli operation. Dissecting the incident’s serious consequences is important, as is debating alternative Israeli options or questions of international law. But responding intelligently to the event requires a better understanding of the operational details — that is, how the Israel Defense Forces Navy (IDFN) and its violent opponents conducted themselves.
Two dramatically different narratives of the May 31 operation have already emerged. One is that of an Israeli “assault” on the flotilla and the “massacre” of “peace activists.” This narrative has been adopted wholesale by much of the world without critical scrutiny, let alone analysis. The other narrative, put forth by the Israelis, is of a naval operation that went bad when the boarding parties were violently attacked on one of the six ships.
This story is far from over. However, video footage provided by the Arab media and the IDF, as well as accounts by Israeli commando personnel and non-Israeli reporters and activists on the ships, have provided greater clarity on what happened on the Mavi Marmara, and why it happened the way it did.
In the lead-up to the violent incident, six ships carrying a collection of European leftists, humanitarians, radical Palestinians, and Turkish Islamists attempted to run the Israeli blockade. This coalition of “peaceful activists” had definite goals in mind. If they failed to run the blockade, they intended to create an incident that would embarrass the Israelis. Some of the Islamists expressed a desire or willingness to become martyrs. It now seems clear that within the overall group of activists, and concentrated on one ship, was a sub-element that hoped to spark a very public and violent clash with the IDFN.
Israel faced the dilemma of properly responding to this challenge. On one hand, if the IDFN did nothing, the blockade would be breached, massively and publicly. This would have been a substantial victory for Hamas, no doubt to be followed by additional attempts. On the other hand, launching a naval action to stop, board, and divert the flotilla ran the risk of potential violence. This risk would have been real even if the Israelis had waited until the ships were no longer in international waters, as some have suggested they might have done. Reportedly, other options were considered, including disabling the ships, but these, too, posed diplomatic risks and dangers for the ships and passengers. In the end the decision was to stop, board, and divert in international waters.
Judging from the available evidence, both the activists and the IDFN had clear conceptions about how this event would unfold, and they prepared accordingly. First, it is important to distinguish between the activists. The primary concern for the purposes of this discussion is the radical activists — a sizable minority who were prepared to fight the IDFN. This element was prepared to carry out a quasi military-style ambush of the boarding forces. They were organized, armed, and equipped for fighting. They exhibited purposeful behavior, and they executed their violent actions under direction.
The Israelis seemed to define the situation as one of crowd or riot control, believing that any violence would be similar to that seen in West Bank demonstrations (e.g., stone throwing, spitting, shoving). This does not mean that they thought the mission would be an easy one.
The radical activists on the Mavi Marmara reportedly numbered between 60 and 100. Prior to the boarding operation, they appeared to organize themselves into cells stationed primarily on the upper deck. The cells were to be employed against Israeli forces boarding from helicopters and speedboats.
These forces had equipment appropriate to their missions. Envisioning a close battle, many had handheld weapons such as knives, metal rods, clubs, firebombs, steel chains, and slingshots. Others had anti-boarding equipment, including hooks, saws, and poles, to fend off Israeli forces. It is unclear whether they initially had any firearms, although during the postincident search of the ship the Israelis found some evidence of this.
Videos from Arab media, taken while the flotilla was preparing to sail, indicate that some passengers were in a combative state of mind, singing jihadist songs, proclaiming readiness for martyrdom, and voicing Islamist slogans. And the ferocity of the attack on the Israeli naval commandos shows that the radical activists were ready to act on this sentiment.
On the Israeli side, the IDFN deployed a small flotilla of missile craft and patrol boats, with naval commandos of Shayetet 13 serving as the primary boarding force. The navy had time to prepare for the action — intelligence assets had been monitoring the “peace flotilla” for days, and boarding rehearsals were conducted. The IDFN reportedly knew that the Mavi Marmara had a radical element on board and concentrated its attention on that ship.
Based on comments by Israeli participants in the action, the rules of engagement (ROE) apparently focused on minimal use of force, not overreacting to provocation and not shooting unless facing an immediate deadly threat. At least some of the boarding forces were equipped with riot-control weapons (paintball guns, stun/tear gas grenades) and carried semiautomatic pistols. Again, the state of mind among IDFN forces apparently was that this was not a combat action. This is clearly evident in how the boarding forces and those watching from other ships reacted with surprise and shock to the radical activists’ assault.
The IDFN had good military reasons for conducting the operation when and where it did. First, Israeli forces had the advantage of good night-vision capabilities. Boarding at night also increased the probability that most of the passengers would be asleep in their cabins and away from the immediate action. That seems to have been the case on some of the ships.
As for location, the operation was carried out some eighty miles off the coast, far enough away to reduce the chances of observation or interference by other parties. In addition, as the flotilla approached Gaza, tension and alertness among the participants would likely have increased. Moreover, waiting until the flotilla was within the twenty-mile blockade zone might not have given the navy enough time to complete the process of warning, boarding, and taking control of the ships.
The actual fighting involved only the Mavi Marmara, the largest of the group with as many as 700 passengers. The boarding was carried out from both helicopters and speedboats.
There is clear evidence from the available videos that the commandos took a noncombat approach. Although some activists claim the ship was fired on from the sea or from helicopters, there was no visible preparatory fire by lethal weapons to clear the decks. It is very unlikely that those activists seen waiting for the Israelis to board would have been exposed in the open if they had been under fire.
The fighting can be separated into two actions: the main one on the upper deck against the commandos landing from helicopters, and one against forces boarding from speedboats. In both cases, the evidence indicates that the radical activists initiated the fighting.
Some forty or more activists reportedly engaged the heliborne commandos. According to Israeli participants in the fight, these activists were organized into cells. IDF video footage shows commandos fast-roping to the upper deck via helicopter with their weapons stowed. They continued to come down one by one, even in the face of assaults. Further footage and firsthand accounts from commandos depict an organized effort to seize the boarders and beat them with clubs, steel rods, knives, and other weapons. The activists also used at least one Molotov-cocktail-type device and a stun grenade. Throughout the available footage, Israeli commandos are clearly seen simply trying to stay alive. Three or four of the commandos were seized and taken below decks, according to IDF reports and news reporters’ accounts, but were reunited with their comrades as the commandos took control of the ship.
IDF video also shows significant violent resistance by activists to the boarding from speedboats, including the use of a stun grenade, employment of fire hoses, and the wielding of clubs and chains. Video from a ship security camera supports this assessment. For example, one can see an organized cell with a leader giving direction; preparation for combat, including the issuing of weapons and donning of gas masks; employment of slingshots and other weapons before any Israeli soldiers can be seen on deck; no evidence of any live fire by Israelis before the activists take action; and no women, children, or elderly individuals present.
The commandos initially seemed to use minimal force. Arab media video footage shows some of them carrying riot-control weapons, and various personnel reported shooting paintballs at activists’ legs. In a postincident interview, one of the Mavi Marmara passengers stated: “At first they used stun grenades, tear gas grenades, and rubber bullets.” What reportedly triggered the use of lethal force was the activists’ gunfire, with weapons either taken from seized commandos or already in their possession. Israeli fire killed nine — by Israeli accounts all of them radical activists involved in the assault — and wounded thirty or more. Most of the deaths reportedly occurred during one violent assault on the commandos, during which six of the nine were killed by close-range pistol shots. According to the Turkish autopsy report, all of the activists were killed by 9 mm ammunition, indicating that the commandos did not employ assault rifles or machineguns. The close-range nature of the wounds to the nine killed also suggests that there was no fire from Israeli helicopters or ships. Seven Israelis were wounded, two seriously. Israeli commando injuries included gunshot and knife wounds, and blunt force trauma from clubs.
The IDFN did not set out for a bloody confrontation, but it ended up in one. For their part, a core group of radical activists clearly appear to have planned on a bloody incident and got what they wanted. Yet much of the world has uncritically accepted the narrative of Israeli “assault” and “massacre.”
The IDFN did not “assault” the ship — they attempted to board a noncompliant vessel and to take control of it, if need be, using crowd- and riot-control tactics. They had not planned on engaging in close combat, and they acted accordingly until attacked. No one can look at the video of Israeli forces reacting to the first violent acts without noting their surprise and shock. And no one can look at this footage and reasonably label the resistance passive or peaceful. This was a well-planned ambush, another case of extremists hiding behind civilians to conduct an attack, and completely in keeping with the asymmetric way in which groups like Hamas wage war. Israel’s opponents will likely attempt to employ such tactics again in the hope of breaking the Gaza blockade.
Jeffrey White is a defense fellow at The Washington Institute, specializing in the military and security affairs of the Levant.