Once again, Palestinian activists have announced their intention to break through Israel’s blockade of Gaza. On Tuesday, Huseyin Oruc, spokesman for the Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief (IHH), a Turkish Islamic aid group the Israeli government and other countries consider a terrorist organization, said an international coalition of 22 non-governmental organizations plans to send 15 ships with a total of 1,500 people. Israel has urged the Turkish government to stop the mission, but officials in Ankara insisted that they don’t have the right to prevent it. The attempt to break the blockade would be the second one a year after nine people were killed aboard the Mavi Marmara when they attacked Israeli commandos attempting to board the vessel on May 31, 2010.
Relations between Israel and Turkey, long-time allies before the incident, have yet to recover. Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s AK Party government, which has moved Turkey away from its previously secular traditions towards Islamism, froze relations with Israel after the deadly incident. The prime minister has since demanded an apology from Israel as a condition for improving relations. Israel has refused, and relations continue be be strained. Turkish Foreign Affairs Minister Ahmet Davutoglu indicated as much in a Monday interview with the Sydney Morning Herald. “We urge Israel not to repeat the same mistake,” he said. “It is Israel’s responsibility not to implement [a blockade] against Gaza. A fact-finding mission of the UN declared that this … is illegal.” “The Mediterranean does not belong to any nation,” he added, contending that last year’s flotilla “raid” occurred in international waters.
Yet it is not just Israel which considers this new attempt to run the blockade as unnecessarily provocative. During a meeting with the U.N. Security Council on April 21, Israel’s UN Ambassador Meron Reuben warned that the organizers of the so-called peace flotilla had ”ties to Hamas and other terrorist organizations,” and that “participants engaged in the planning of this flotilla have made very troubling statements expressing their willingness to become martyrs in this effort.” Both the United States and Germany echoed that sentiment with U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice contending that ”[T]here are distinct mechanisms to deliver goods to Gaza and there are no justifications to sail directly to Gaza,” and German Ambassador Peter Witting calling on the organizers to “find other ways to deliver aid to the people of Gaza.”
IHH leader and flotilla organizer Bulent Yildirim was defiant. In a speech on April 7, during a memorial service held in the Turkish city of Alanya for IHH operatives killed aboard the Mavi Marmara, he declared that ”we [participants in the upcoming flotilla] are not afraid to die as shaheeds,” and reiterated the IHH’s determination to continue dispatching flotillas until “the siege of Gaza is lifted” and “we complete our journey to Al-Aqsa [mosque].” He claimed the flotilla will go on as scheduled and that it will include “a ship from every country in Europe” as well the Mavi Marmara.
Another group involved in the flotilla is the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) a left-wing organization of anti-Israeli activists established in the United States in 2001. On their California website, the ISF posted a call for applications from its membership to participate in the upcoming attempt to run the Israeli blockade. According to The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center the ISM is recruiting activists “who previously participated in ISM flotillas, especially those who were detained and deported by Israel.” Anticipating a confrontation, the website instructs those who participate to “deploy broad use of the tactic of ‘greater nonviolent resistance after capture,’” including ”[R]efusing deportation until a set of conditions is met” and “[E]xtreme nonviolent noncooperation during captivity”
The radical group Free Gaza Movement (FGM), which organized the previous flotilla, is also involved in this one. They have stated their intention to name the upcoming provocation “Freedom Flotilla–Stay Human” in honor of Vittorio Arrigoni, a pro-Palestinian activist who was found murdered in the Gaza strip hours after being kidnapped there. Despite attempts by radicals to blame Israel for the crime, the BBC reports that Salafist radicals, an Islamist movement that considers Hamas too moderate, was responsible.
More importantly, former Weather Underground leaders William Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, as well as Code Pink founder Jodie Evans, helped organize the Free Gaza Movement. They were directly involved in putting together the six-ship flotilla that challenged the Israelis a year ago. According to DiscovertheNetworks.org, it was at least the fourth incident in which the FGM attempted to provoke the Israeli navy. On August 23, 2008, two FGM boats were allowed by Israel to dock in Gaza, which the group’s members celebrated as a symbolic break of the Israeli “siege.” One of those boats, the Dignity, was once again allowed to dock at a Gaza port on October 29, 2008. On December 29, 2009, the Dignity attempted a third docking, but it was diverted due to a major Israeli military offensive taking place in Gaza in retaliation for rocket attacks by Hamas against southern Israeli cities. In a different tack last January, Ayers, Dohrn and Evans were involved in an attempt to enter Gaza from Egypt. When the Egyptian government refused, they participated in street demonstrations until the government relented and allowed 100 activists to cross the border.
Ayers and Dohrn have been associates of President Obama for many years. Obama’s first fundraising effort for state senator was held in the couple’s home in 1995, and both men were board members on the leftist Woods Fund from 1998-2001 and the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, an educational reform group, during the ’90s. Ms. Evans worked as a fundraiser and campaign funds bundler for Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. Ayers, Dohrn, and Evans are reportedly involved in this upcoming flotilla as well.
Israel’s blockade of Gaza began in 2006, in response to the kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in a cross-border raid from the territory. Israel tightened the blockade in 2007, when Hamas seized power from the PLO, splitting itself from the government run by Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas. Earlier in April, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a group of European representatives that stopping the second flotilla was “in [Europe's] and our common interest, and I think it’s something that you should…transmit to your governments, that this flotilla must be stopped.”
It is unlikely European governments will respond. In the previous incident with the Mavi Marmara, Israel was largely condemned by the international community, despite the fact that Israel released a video showing that the commandos who boarded the ship acted in self-defense. Photographs by the Israeli government revealed several slingshots, knives, axes, wooden clubs, and gas masks, and ceramic vests imprinted with the Turkish flag were found, despite the captain of the Mavi Marmara‘s claim that he had instructed his crew not to allow any weapons on board the ship.
Possibly complicating European response even further has been a request by Claude Leostic from the pro-Palestinian Association France Palestine Solidarite (AFPS), that top EU officials threaten Israel with economic sanctions if there’s a repeat of last year’s violence. “The EU has been saying for a long time that the blockade is against international law. It has the means to apply economic pressure, to cancel its economic agreement with Israel. If they are serious about their position, they could send such a message. This would be a really good move,” said Leostic.
And so the ships will sail, reportedly from a number of different ports in the Mediterranean, including Cyprus, Italy, Malta, Turkey and Tunisia. They are expected to avoid both the NATO blockade of Libya and Israeli territorial waters, heading straight for Gaza. Israel has offered to allow the flotilla to dock in the Israeli port of Ashdod instead. IHH spokesman Oruc said organizers would let the UN, or an international group including Israeli experts, search the boats for weapons. Yet Oruc cautioned that the flotilla will not allow a search by Israelis “on their own.” An unnamed Israeli diplomat, anticipating trouble, referred to the 1994 San Remo Manual on International Law Applicable to Armed Conflicts at Sea as legal grounds for either capturing vessels which break a blockade, or in the case of those which have been warned and resist, initiating military action. The Turkel Commission, an internal inquiry by Israel’s government into last year’s incident, exonerated its commandos’ use of deadly force, and despite calls by Turkey for an independent investigation, Israel considers the Mavi Marmara matter closed.
The “X Factor” in this year’s potential confrontation? The upheavals occurring in the various nations across the region — most of which have been focused inward. It is quite likely that this flotilla is an attempt to turn much of that focus towards Israel, in order to remind those nations that, while they may be going through their respective national dramas, animus for Israel must never be left out of the equation, no matter what power eventually transitions to in Yemen, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia, Libya and possibly even Syria.
It would be wonderful to think the Obama administration anticipates such a strategy, and is formulating plans to either counteract it, or minimize its effects. Yet given the president’s current Middle East strategy, which has been laughingly characterized by The New Yorker magazine’s Ryan Lizza as “leading from behind,” such anticipation may be too much to expect.