BICOM Analysis: Lessons learned in the second flotilla

Key points

  • Lessons learned from the Mavi Marmara incident a year ago by both Israel and the international community have helped to avoid a violent confrontation this year.
  • Israel learned from its mistakes last year, establishing a clearer and more defensible policy on access to the Gaza Strip, investigating last year’s incident with a public inquiry, using diplomatic means to prevent a confrontation and preparing militarily for the possibility of violent resistance.
  • Many in the international community, including the UN, US and European powers, took a clear and united stance that the flotilla was an unnecessary provocation, and made clear the availability of alternative routes to deliver aid to Gaza. Even the Turkish foreign minister withdrew support.
  • Though the Hamas-run Gaza Strip remains extremely poor, the situation there is improving as a result of Israel relaxing its border restrictions and Egypt beginning to open the Rafah border crossing.
  • The experience of recent months illustrates that the situation in Gaza is best addressed by the international community working in cooperation with Israel, in order to meet the needs of the people of Gaza in conjunction with Israel’s security requirements. Hamas’s ongoing attempts to further arm itself and its commitment to violence against Israel remain at the root of the problem.


Several weeks on from its scheduled date of departure, the second flotilla to Gaza has failed to match the impact of its predecessor a year ago. The one small boat that has so far attempted to approach the Gaza coast was boarded by the Israeli navy without violent incident on Tuesday, 19 July. Most of the ships that attempted to sail to Gaza from Greek ports were stopped by the Greek port authorities. In addition, attempts by pro-Palestinian activists to cause disruptions at Ben-Gurion Airport on the weekend of 8 July in a ‘flytilla’ were largely foiled, thanks to effective cooperation between the Israeli authorities and their counterparts in Europe.

This outcome is in stark contrast to that of the previous flotilla a year ago.  The deaths of nine Turkish activists aboard the Mavi Marmara led to widespread international anger towards Israel. Why has the outcome this time been so different?

Improved Israeli readiness

The Israeli authorities were surprised by the violent resistance they encountered during last year’s flotilla. They neglected to process the available information about the Turkish Islamist IHH group that triggered the violence, and did not prepare accordingly. This time around, the authorities began to arrange their methods for responding to the flotilla months in advance.  Their strategy was prevention and their principal tool was diplomacy. In addition, Israel readied itself militarily for the possibility of a violent confrontation.

Israel publicly investigated the last flotilla incident with an inquiry led by a former High Court judge and which included international observers, one of whom was Lord David Trimble. This inquiry helped establish the legality of Israel’s maritime closure to prevent Hamas from acquiring additional weapons. The findings have also fed into a UN inquiry led by former New Zealand prime minister Geoffrey Palmer. According to a series of leaks, the Palmer report is expected to both confirm that Israel’s maritime restrictions on Gaza are legal and praise the Turkel report, whilst criticising Israel for using excessive force in taking control of the Mavi Marmara. It is reportedly critical of Turkey for not preventing the flotilla and for the weakness of Turkey’s own internal inquiry. The UN is currently trying to broker a compromise between Israel and Turkey over the report. Turkey is demanding an Israeli apology in order to pave the way for a return to the normalisation of Israel-Turkey relations.

The prospect of UN criticism over Turkey’s role in the Mavi Marmara incident may have played a role in the Turkish government’s decision to withdraw support from IHH involvement in this year’s flotilla. Having apparently lost government support, the IHH withdrew its involvement, substantially reducing its impact.

Israel’s greatly improved relations with Greece proved another important element. Israeli diplomats have been quietly working to develop this relationship in recent years. Israel’s strained relations with Turkey apparently helped its relationship with Greece. Greece’s efforts were vital in two areas. Firstly, the Greek authorities strictly enforced maritime law in the area under their jurisdiction, preventing efforts by ships in the flotilla to set off towards Gaza without authorisation. Secondly, the Greek offer to transfer the flotilla’s humanitarian cargo under Greek auspices, via Ashdod or El-Arish, was vital. The flotilla organisers immediately rejected this offer, exposing the intentions of the activists as political, rather than humanitarian.

Pro-Israel NGOs were also better prepared, helping to spread public awareness of the true nature of the people behind the flotilla initiative, such as Netherlands-based Hamas activist Amin Abou Rashed. NGOs such as the Israel Law Centre (Shurat HaDin) worked to prevent some of the ships from acquiring insurance coverage, by explaining to relevant shipping insurance companies the nature of the flotilla and its intentions.

Israel appeared similarly well prepared for the ‘flytilla’ activists planning to fly to Ben Gurion Airport. Israel provided airlines ahead of time with lists of activists planning to cause disruption, enabling them to prevent the activists from flying.

Widespread international opposition to the flotilla

Just as important as Israel’s preparations was the determination on the part of a broad coalition of states to prevent a repeat of the scenes on last year’s flotilla. International pressure on Turkey is likely to have been another important factor causing the Turkish government to withdraw its support.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said at the beginning of June that the organisers of the flotilla should reconsider their plans in light of the opening of the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza.

On 23 June, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she did ‘not believe that the flotilla is a necessary or useful effort to try to assist the people of Gaza.’ Clinton went on to note that construction materials were now entering Gaza.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, in a briefing on 26 June, advised that existing land routes, rather than flotillas, should be used to bring in aid into Gaza.

The British government also took a clear position against the flotilla. Middle East Minister Alistair Burt said during a visit to Israel at the end of June: ‘There are recognised ways to get humanitarian aid into Gaza which is supported by the Israeli authorities and the UN, and anyone looking to make a humanitarian contribution should do just that.’

Changed reality in the Gaza Strip

An important factor that helped Israel and the wider international community to unite in opposition to the flotilla is the changed reality affecting the Gaza Strip itself. Gaza is still experiencing real and widespread poverty, but the situation has improved.

Responding to international demands after the Mavi Marmara incident, Israel announced in June 2010 that it would drop all import restrictions on its border crossings except for ‘dual-use’ goods that could be used by Hamas and other groups for violent purposes. Since this change, the number of truckloads entering Gaza daily via the Kerem Shalom crossing has increased by 92%. Over 30% of goods entering Gaza are new products approved since July 2010. More materials for construction were also permitted for specific projects under the auspices of international aid agencies, with over 1,000 truckloads of building material having entered Gaza since July 2010.

In December 2010, Israel also announced additional measures to increase exports from Gaza, principally of agricultural products.

All of this has contributed to an improvement in the economic situation in Gaza, where the economy is growing and unemployment is falling. As Nidal al-Mugrabi, Reuters’ senior correspondent in Gaza put it, ‘If pro-Palestinian activists unexpectedly manage to slip past Israel’s naval blockade on the Gaza Strip in the coming days, they might be surprised by what they see in the Hamas-controlled enclave when they disembark… Roads are being paved, houses are being built, new cars have taken to the busy streets and shops are full of myriad products.’

The partial opening by Egypt of the Rafah crossing into Gaza is also a significant development. Following the overthrow of the Mubarak regime in Egypt and the signing of the Palestinian unity agreement, Egypt’s military government announced that the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza would be opened. All men between the ages of 18 to 40 are permitted to travel without visas. So far, the numbers allowed through the crossing have been limited by Egypt. The interim Egyptian government remains very concerned about the security threat posed by Hamas and terrorist activity in the Sinai Peninsula. The extent to which Egypt allows access to the border also remains an important point of leverage with Hamas. Nonetheless, the opening of the crossing is an important change.

Conclusion: learning the lessons

Various factors account for the very different outcome of the Gaza flotilla this year, compared to one year ago. Israel showed its capacity to learn from last year’s mistakes, when it did not anticipate or fully prepare for the violent protests aboard the flotilla. This time, Israel was better prepared and used a strategy of prevention led by diplomacy, rather than relying on a military option. Over the past year, it responded to international criticism and relaxed its restrictions on what goods can enter and leave Gaza via land crossings. At the same time, through an independent inquiry, Israel established the legality of its maritime closure on Gaza. Its use of diplomacy over recent weeks to undermine the flotilla’s attempts to sail towards Gaza and trigger a confrontation also paid dividends. This is the case particularly with the development of close relations with Greece. The role of Israeli diplomacy has been supported by the work of Israeli and international NGOs.

Just as important was the role of the international community, with a wide range of international players making clear that the flotilla was an unnecessary provocation. Turkey’s apparent withdrawal of support, and the subsequent IHH decision to abandon its involvement, was a significant blow.

Also important is that the reality in Gaza has changed. Israel’s change of policy and Egypt’s decision to open the Rafah crossing have contributed to improving the situation on the ground.

The prevention this year of another violent incident illustrates that the situation in Gaza is best addressed by the international community working in cooperation with Israel, in order to address the needs of the people of Gaza in conjunction with Israel’s security requirements. Hamas’s ongoing attempts to further arm itself and its commitment to violence against Israel remain at the root of the problem.

For background briefings on the flotilla and the situation in Gaza, please visit www.bicom.org.uk/gaza