The Turkish ship, the Mavi Mamara, from a distance
What exactly happened.
An objective description of what happened is as follows. As the six ships in the flotilla were approaching Gaza in an attempt to break the blockade the Israeli Navy prepared to prevent them from doing so. On four of the six ships the Israeli commandos were met with passive resistance. However on one ship, the Turkish based Mavi Mamara the activists, many of whom were members of the controversial IHH, resisted violently with light weapons, but not fire arms even though at some stage they succeeded in disarming the commandos of their hand guns and wounding two of them with their own weapons. No reasonable person would deny that they used violence to resists the attempt at boarding as the video below, released by the Israeli navy clearly shows. All accounts that the Israeli navy opened fire on peace activists in an unprovoked attack can be completely discounted.
Israeli commandos are attacked as they land on deck
However, the question now must be asked, were the activists entitled to resist violently given the fact that at the time they were in international waters and were in fact the victims or piracy. This is where we enter a difficult legal quagmire. Sammy Finkelam commenting on Seraphic Secret describes it as follows.
If Israel declares a blockade, then either A) Israel is still asserting it is occupying Gaza or B) Israel is asserting it at war with Gaza. Both of these potentially have some bad legal consequences. If Israel does not declare a blockade then boarding the ship is an act of international piracy. And that's as far as Israel thought it would go.
So, were they entitled to resist ? I do not know. It is a legal question I cannot answer. What I do know is that this was a spectacular blunder by the Israelis. They have never been great at PR but this is a total disaster for them. It was the first thought that crossed my mind when I heard what happened. Surely they were aware of the implications for the media battle when they decided to go in using such force. After the initial incident the naval commandos should have boarded the ship in greater numbers with tear gas, rubber bullets, all the appropriate riot gear and retaken the ship. The use of such overwhelming force was both wrong and counterproductive to Israeli interests.
The IDF have very clear rules of engagements. If those rules allow them to engage then they tend to do so using extreme force. When dealing with peace activists and human shield demonstrators this can become very problematic. As in all conflicts there is great bitterness in this one. As someone who has a fairly solid grasp of the conservative Israeli soul I can say that many right wing Israelis have a particular contempt for the pro Palestinian peace activist types. This is not the first scenario where some of these activists have lost their lives. American Rachel Corrie was killed by an Israeli bulldozer while attempting to protect a Palestinian home. British activist Tom Hurndall (pictured) was hit in the head by an Israeli sniper while acting as a human shield in the Gaza strip. He had been wearing a bright fluorescent jacket at the time. The men responsible for the deaths of Corrie and Hurndall probably are in the clear technically but in reality the IDF know the rules of engagement so well, that they know how to kill and get away with it. They were confronted with an activist but what they saw was a liberal, European, anti Semitic, terrorist sympathiser and they said to themselves, F*$k it, I am taking them out. I suspect that a similar atmosphere prevailed in the Mediterranean in the early hours of Monday morning. What else could explain the commandos decision to open fire on so many using such lethal force.
Like many political animals I have taken the long personal journey from the left to the right. However I knew many of these far left activists in my early twenties and am still friends with many. While I believe that most are misguided I do not believe that they are all anti semites disguising their hatred of Jews in opposition to the events in Gaza, as the pro Israeli press would have us believe. And they do not deserve to be killed like this.
The Siege of Gaza, is it justified ?
Israel is entitled to defend itself. Hamas has inflicted many atrocities against Israel in the last 20 years. Israel is entitled to weaken their control over Gaza by implementing a siege. But they are not entitled to starve the people of Gaza. So for me it comes down to one issue. How bad are things in Gaza ? The Palestinians and their supporters claim it is a humanitarian crisis. The Israelis claim to be allowing thousands of tonnes of food in per day and that no such crisis exists. I don't know. All I know is that one side is not being truthful.
There is however one important point I want to make about Gaza. The Israelis, even right wing Israeli hawks do not want Gaza. I have often criticised vociferously Israels policy of settlement expansion in the west Bank which is not I believe about security but about conquering land the Israelis want. That however is the West bank, or Judea and Samaria as the hawks who want to see the the fulfillment of the biblical prophecy of a greater Israel, like to refer to it as. However the land south of Israel is not sacred land as far as the Jews are concerned. Menachem Begin, the farther of the settlement policy returned the entire Sinai Peninsula to Egypt after the 1979 Camp David Accords. Likewise the Israelis withdrew from Gaza and removed 100% of settlements from the strip in 2006. Israeli motivations toward the Gaza strip are motivated I believe by achieving security for Israel. They obviously want to prevent an organisation like Hamas from gaining the capability to attack it. This is why they do not allow many construction materials into the Gaza strip as they believe it will be used to build tunnels designed for smuggling weapons.
The International respone
Irish Foreign Minister Micheal Martin summoned the Israeli ambassador yesterday and accused his government of kidnapping Irish citizens in international waters. Very strong words indeed. They have not ruled out expelling him even though I highly doubt that they would take this extreme measure. In a remarkably rare example of international unity today the UN Security council condemned the Israeli act, something which probably could not have happened without President Obama. The Egyptians, realising the level of anti Israeli settlement out there have decided to open the border crossing at Rafa, essentially ending the siege of Gaza, albeit temporarily. Meanwhile this incident is not yet over. the sixth ship the Rachel Corrie is still en route to Gaza. The last ship in the flotilla it was not boarded the Israeli Navy. On board the Rachel Corrie are two prominent Irish people, former under secretary of the UN and former lecturer of mine in Trinity College, Dennis Halliday and former Nobel peace prize winner for her work in Northern Ireland Maread Corrigan. Micheal Martn has demanded that the ship be let through. Most nations have now called for the siege to end. Given the horrendous publicity Israel has received in the last 36 hours. I suspect they will probably let the last ship through.