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Analysis

BICOM Briefing: Gaza Flotilla Incident

 

This updates BICOM’s Briefing of yesterday on the Gaza flotilla incident.

Key Points

  • The Israeli forces that stormed the Gaza flotilla on Monday morning attacked with light forces armed with riot control weapons, and were surprised by the violent resistance of those on the boats. They resorted to use of light fire, believing their lives were in danger, resulting in nine deaths among those on board.
  • Prior to the incident, Israel offered to transfer the aid carried by the protestors to the Gaza Strip via land borders under the activists’ observation, after security checks. Whilst committed to facilitating the flow of aid to Gaza, Israel’s concern is not to allow the Gaza coast to become a corridor for weapons transfers to Hamas. Questions are now being raised about the approach of the entire international community to Gaza and containing Hamas.
  • The angriest reaction has come from Turkey, who have withdrawn their ambassador from Israel. The UN Security Council has called for an impartial inquiry.
  • Israeli ministers have expressed “sorrow” at the deaths but stressed that soldiers acted in self defence. Israel has also highlighted that IHH, the Turkish group involved in the flotilla, is believed to have a history of support for terrorism.

What happened?

  • Early on Monday 31 May, a flotilla of six activist’s boats headed towards the Gaza coast. They were met by vessels from the Israeli Navy about 60km from the coast, apparently in international waters. The Israeli navy warned them that Gaza is under naval blockade. The Israeli navy invited the boats to enter the Ashdod port, north of Gaza. Israel also offered to transfer the humanitarian aid to Gaza under the observation of the activists, according to Israeli authority regulations. The flotilla continued to try and reach the Gaza coast.
  • A team of Israeli commandos, from the elite naval Shayetet 13 commando unit, boarded the protest boats at around 4am from helicopters. Five of the boats were captured without violence, but on the largest, the Turkish flagged Marmara, Israel soldiers were met with planned, violent resistance.
  • According to eye witness accounts and video footage, the Israeli forces initially landed on the ship with only a handful of men armed with riot control weapons that fire paintballs. The activists on the ship tied the rope from the helicopter to a mast on the ship in an attempt to bring it down. This delayed the arrival of more forces. Video footage of the incident shows the first soldiers landing on the ship being overwhelmed with men carrying sticks, bars, chairs and knives. The activists also fought with slingshots firing glass marbles. The first soldier to land on the ship was beaten before being thrown off the top deck. One soldier was stabbed and two were shot with firearms taken from the soldiers.
  • Believing their lives to be in danger, the soldiers requested and received permission to use live fire. The ship was eventually brought under control with the deaths of nine of the activists. The ships were taken to the Ashdod port. Most of the passengers are being processed by immigration authoeiries in Israel. Around 50 have already been voluntarily repatriated.

 Who was on the protest boats and what was their aim?

  • Around 600 activists were reported to be on the boats, including 1976 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mairead Corrigan Maguire of Northern Ireland, European legislators and British activists.
  • The organisations involved in the flotilla include the ‘Free Gaza Movement’ alongside other European NGOs, and the Turkish Insani Yardim Vakfi (IHH) movement.
  • The IHH has been accused of being a militant Islamist movement with a record of supporting terrorism. (For a report on IHH by the Danish Institute for International Studies click here.)
  • Speaking to BBC World News, a spokeswoman for the flotilla, Audrey Bomse stressed that the primary mission of the flotilla was to make a political statement with regard to the human rights of the Palestinian in Gaza and to “break the siege”, as opposed to delivering the aid itself.
  • The groups involved refused requests from Israeli campaigners last week to deliver packages and letters to Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who has been held captive by Hamas in the Gaza Strip without any external contact since 2006.

 What is Israel’s policy on access to the Gaza Strip?

  • Israel facilitates the passage of around one hundred trucks a day of aid to Gaza through its border. There are no limits on quantity of aid, but Israel restricts the types of goods it will allow in, because of the state of conflict that exists between Israel and the Hamas regime in Gaza.
  • Israel is concerned to avoid any action that will strengthen the Hamas government in Gaza, in the context of the divide between Hamas and the moderate Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. In contrast to Gaza, the West Bank has seen considerable improvement in movement and access in the last two years due to improved cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
  • Israel insists that all aid entering Gaza be checked to ensure it does not include weaponry. It seeks to maintain the naval blockade in order to prevent the coast of Gaza becoming a corridor for the smuggling of arms to Hamas. Hamas has made considerable efforts to rearm and improve its arsenal with Iranian weapons smuggled under the Gaza-Egypt border. The international community has in the past backed Israel’s efforts to prevent the smuggling of weapons to Hamas, which is widely recognised as a threat to the peace process. At the same time the international community has criticised Israel’s border restrictions.
  • Egypt, which considers Hamas to present a major threat to its own security, allows almost nothing to pass through its border with Gaza, but large quantities of goods enter the strip through tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border.
  • For more details see BICOM Briefing: Israeli policy on access to Gaza update – 27/5/2010.

What has been the reaction in Israel?

  • Prime Minister Netanyahu has defended the actions of the soldiers, describing Israel’s actions as “a clear case of self-defense.” He stressed that, “Israel cannot allow the free flow of weapons, of and rockets and missiles to the terrorist base of Hamas in Gaza.”
  • Speaking on BBC Radio 4‘s ‘Today’ programme, Israeli Ambassador to the UK Ron Prosser that the operation had not been successful but reasserted the need of Israel to take actions to defend its citizens.
  • In a press conference on Monday, Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak expressed his “sorrow” at the events, but stressed the responsibility lay with the organisers of the flotilla. He asserted that the Israeli forces involved were well trained, and acted only to defend themselves. He further emphasised that there was a well established procedure to send aid to Gaza and that it was unacceptable to allow the boats to reach Gaza without security checks, which would open up a precedent for a smuggling corridor.
  • Israeli Arab leaders and parliamentarians have reacted angrily, strongly condemning the Israeli actions. Riots took place in some Israeli-Arab towns.
  • Israeli media commentators have questioned how this operation was planned and executed and criticised the tactics chosen by the commanders which seemed to place the soldiers in an impossible situation and endangered their lives. Concerns are being expressed about the impact on Israel’s international image and the possible reaction from Israeli Arabs and Palestinians.

 What has been the international reaction?

  • The United Nations Security Council agreed a statement on Tuesday morning calling for an impartial investigation and condemning the “acts” which led to the deaths, whilst stopping short of condemning Israel outright.
  • Foreign Secretary William Hague said in a statement on Monday, “I deplore the loss of life during the interception of the Gaza Flotilla.” He added, “We have consistently advised against attempting to access Gaza in this way, because of the risks involved. But at the same time, there is a clear need for Israel to act with restraint and in line with international obligations.”
  • A White House spokesman said on Modnay: “The United States deeply regrets the loss of life and injuries sustained, and is currently working to understand the circumstances surrounding this tragedy.”
  • There has been a very angry reaction from the government of Turkey, the flag state of the largest ship, who have recalled their ambassador. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas condemned the incident as a “massacre” and has called for an emergency meeting of the Arab League.
  • European Foreign Affairs representative Baroness Ashton has called for an inquiry and for crossings into Gaza to be opened.
  • Robert Serry, UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process and Filippo Grandi, Commissioner-General of the UN Relief and Works Agency have expressed shock in a statement and sought explanations from Israel.
  • Global think tank, International Crisis Group, in a statement, stressed the international dimension of the problems relating to Gaza, saying, “the incident is an indictment of a much broader policy toward Gaza for which Israel does not bear sole responsibility.”

 What will happen now?

  • Most of the activists are being held in Israel with around 50 so far having been repatriated voluntarily. They are being handled by Israeli immigration authorities.
  • Israel has said it will unload and check the aid at the Ashdod port and transfer the goods that are permitted to enter the Gaza Strip via the usual land crossings on the Israel-Gaza border.
  • Another boat of the ‘Free Gaza Movement’ is heading towards the Gaza Strip and activists have expressed determination to continue their efforts to break the blockade.

Further Reading