This blog’s name is “Beyond the Bosphorus.” Â The Bosphorus flows between the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara. Â And this post is about what happened today aboard the boat called “Mavi Marmara” (Blue Marmara). Â Social media is overflowing with furor over the deaths at the hands of Israeli Navy forces as they boarded the boat. Â The boat was leading a flotilla, carrying activists and humanitarian aid from different European countries to Gaza, which has been under an Israeli blockade since 2007. Â While I am enraged like everybody else at the disproportionate use of force which has become a signature IDF response and at the civilian casualties, I still see what happened last night as an unfortunate end of a showdown, a SHOW-down. Â Both the activists and the state of Israel were staging their own shows over the waters of the Mediterranean. Â I don’t see a “right” or “wrong” side in this confrontation, there is “wrong” and “even more wrong”. Â I’ll do some brainstorming about the motivations of the different actors in an effort to understand their actions that led to this outcome.
First, Israel: Â The state of Israel and most Jewish Israelis have a constant concern about their survival. Â If you consider the persecution, the Holocaust, the anti-Semitism they have been subjected to throughout their history, it is not surprising that Jewish people harbor an existential fear. Â Israel is seen as a safe harbor, a place to call their own where they won’t be subjected to whims of a non-Jewish majority, the Zion. Â The problem is that, Israel was not established over uninhabited lands AND it has never been willing to accept those “other” inhabitants as its equal citizens, a combination which is a recipe for conflict. Â Israel is constitutionally a “Jewish” state, if that changes Israel ceases to be “the Zion.” Â Â Of course I cannot go through the whole history of the Israeli-Palestinian (or at times Arab-Israeli) conflict. Â But at its heart, it is a clash of Zion vs. Palestine. Â Two peoples have a claim over the same territory and are unwilling and unable to live together.
The current political situation is this: there are de facto two states although there are many issues about the borders (e.g. the settlements in West Bank) and the infrastructure (e.g. people who live in the WB and work across the fence/wall, water sources). Â The Palestinian Authority territory is not contiguous though, there is the West Bank and there is the Gaza Strip along the Mediterranean. Â The political authority in the two Palestinian areas, which came to power after elections and the internal strife between Fatah and Hamas are different as well. Â So within the de facto Palestinian National Authority, there is another de facto state in the Gaza Strip, and this one is under the control of Hamas. Â Hamas is considered to be a terrorist organization by several states, including the US, and that is a big part of the problem because it does not have international legitimacy.
For Israel, having an independent Palestinian state is one thing, having it ruled by a militantly anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish party is another. Â They are also worried about the Islamicization of the Palestinian “nationalist” struggle since the 1990s and increasing involvement of Iran through its relationships with Hamas (and Hizballah in S. Lebanon). Â The existential worries of Israel cannot tolerate Hamas, so it has been wary of Gaza where Hamas rules. Â Israel performed military operations on Gaza in 2007-8 and 2008-9, as a response to the missile attacks from Gaza to the Israeli cities across the border. Â This is also the beginning of the blockade, which was aimed at preventing weaponry reach Gaza but ended up in a humanitarian disaster. Â People of Gaza are suffering of malnourishment and access to drinking water most, among lacking other necessities. Â I have been to Sderot, an Israeli city which suffered the rocket and mortar attacks and I do empathize with people’s worries about their lives. Â The houses in the city are renovated to include a shelter-room with boosted walls and roof, each (I mean each and every!) bus stop has a shelter where people should seek safety if sirens start. Â Who wants to live like that? Â Shame on Hamas for the -mostly blind- attacks on the cities. Â Hamas may have won in popular elections, but we cannot call Palestine a democracy yet, can we? Â With its inability to contain its militant wing and its radical Islamist tendencies, I cannot see Hamas as a democratic political party. Â If they were, they could settle their differences with Fatah democratically.
That said: Israel’s response to Gaza has always been disproportionate. Â In response to missiles, they performed air strikes and invasion, in response to local rocket production by Palestinians, they blocked entry of everything bringing a weekly quota for transfer of “allowed” goods (and the quotas are ridiculous). Â The blockade and its results have been criticized within Israel and worldwide, but the policy remained in effect. Â Egypt officially sustains the blockade across its border with Gaza, but individuals have discovered that building tunnels across the border into Gaza is a lucrative business. Â An unimaginable variety of things are smuggled through the tunnels (e.g. sheep and goats), probably including weapons and weapon materials. Â So, Israel could not stop weapons from coming in, and is starving people for no good reason. Â As you can imagine, the poor majority of Gazan people cannot purchase the goods which are smuggled in because they are basically luxury-goods because of the supply and the risk-premium on their price. Â Weapons in, few rich Gazans (probably including Hamas’ top echelon) unaffected, poor Gazans suffering: the result of the blockade. Â How can Israeli gov’t and military not see how ineffective and how much a PR disaster this is? Â This is beyond the effects of the existential paranoia, I think it has to do with the hawkish military having too much influence and the dynamics of the coalition government; but I don’t know much about domestic affairs of Israel to reach a decisive answer on this. Â Whatever the reasons may be, given the precedence, it does not take a genius to guess that any attempt to breach the blockade will be disproportionately responded and Israel does not refrain from killing civilians.
One final note: this attack happened on international waters. Â Territorial waters are recognized as 12 nautical miles off a country’s coast, and an extra 12 miles constitute contiguous waters. Â This attack happened 60+ miles off the Israeli coast. Â I heard in some report that Israel has extended its zone last week citing a naval military exercise as the reason. Â Still, Israel can’t bend international law as they please, this attack -at least by location- is illegal, period.
Ok, the other side of the story, the flotilla: It’s an interesting amalgam of people with different agendas. Â They converge on their opposition to the blockade and their sympathy for the Gazans’ plight, but I guess their commonalities end there. Â There are people from different countries of Europe, and they probably are left-leaning or liberal. Â Even some parliamentarians are aboard the flotilla. Â I can safely assume that their purpose was humanitarian. Â What complicates the picture is the group of Turkish people on the flotilla. Â It’s easy to notice that they are Islamists. Â They are more conservative than moderate in their Islamism, too; but this is not to say that they are radical militants as some Israeli sources have suggested. Â Their goal is not exactly humanitarian, but rather solidarity with their Muslim brothers. Â If the humanitarian effort were for the suffering people of Darfur, their choice would be keeping silent, if not backing the Muslim gov’t of Sudan. Â When the effort is for Palestinians, who have become the symbol of Muslims’ suffering (just like Afghans, Chechens and Bosnians were at some point in recent history), they do join actively and financially.
However, this different agenda changes the picture. Â I wonder if the result would be the same if the flotilla only included people from Greece, Britain, etc. and not Turkey. Â I wonder if the reason that the Israeli navy boarded the Mavi Marmara, the Turkish boat, is only because it was the leading boat in the flotilla. Â I don’t know the answers, but I do know that the Turkish organizations which c0-organized this trip were there for the “show” as much as for the aid. Â Theirs was a failproof action. Â If they get stopped by Israeli forces violently, there would be some PR consequences for Israel (check). Â If they are let go through, they would have set a precedent and aid would have reached Gaza, which is a A+ in their record.
This whole attempt is a provocation. Â Even though the goals may be noble, the organizers and the participants, Turkish or otherwise, knew that Israel wouldn’t just let them through. Â They should have known that IDF is not known for its delicate handling of civilians. Â The flotilla wanted to draw the world’s attention to the blockade and stir up popular opinion especially among the Muslims, and they succeeded big time, but at what cost? Â Here is how you bring “humanitarian” aid to Gaza peacefully. Â Maybe construction materials wouldn’t be allowed, but lives wouldn’t be lost either. Â We need some real honesty about the priorities and goals of the flotilla activists. Â While drawing attention to the blockade, protesting it, condemning Israel’s heavy handed approach to Gaza are all valid causes, they shouldn’t be hidden behind the cause of humanitarian aid. Â ”Humanitarian” is neutral, but the activists are political, there is an inconsistency there, and they should admit it. Â (A sign that this is a staged show: Â The Islamists in Turkey were ready for a protest, waiting for Israel to intervene in a way that gave them a reason. Â All the Palestinian flags for all the headbands condemning Israel and supporting Palestine in today’s protests in Istanbul show that the protest was not just an ad hoc event or a spur of the moment.)
Israel is releasing videos of the boat after they took control. Â They show evidence that the people aboard were armed, but it is ridiculous. Â All they show is slingshots and marbles and metal rods which look like broken-off parts of the boat. Â Israeli commandoes have also claimed that Arabic speaking men have grabbed their pistols. Â I don’t know about the Arabs, but almost all adult Turkish men have served in the military (like Israeli men and women) and they should’ve been expected to retaliate, have the ability to use guns etc. Â My personal belief is that people defended themselves and their boat when they saw navy soldiers descending upon the boat. Â When I saw the videos, I was listening to the public announcements from the capatin’s deck rather than the reporters. Â They make it quite obvious that they had no preparation and no organization for an attack, they seem and sound very clueless and panicked to me, often uttering “calm down!” Â I am sure they were expecting an intervention (thus the baby, women and old people on board as human shields), but I don’t think they were ready for an intervention like this. Â Israel has taken preemptive action and used disproportionate force -yet again. Â They have their reasons for this intervention, but the intervention and the results are unjustified, no matter what the goals and actions of the activists may be.
Finally, the Turkish government: I’ve read in many English language sources that the Turkish organization involved in the flotilla is supported by or has links to the governing party. Â Ummm, not exactly! Â It is true that the Turkish government did not do anything to stop them from leaving (when they could restrict its citizens’ actions much more easily than say Britain or Ireland). Â However, the Turks on the boat, the Turkish organizations and the bulk of protestors who got together in Istanbul are not the constituency of the AKP but of Saadet Partisi (SP, Felicity Party). Â Although AKP is a splinter party off of the SP line, they are not the same. Â SP caters to the far-right conservative Islamists but AKP has been trying to aim center-right votes while trying to steal the more center-right leaning voters of the SP base invoking their shared past with the SP. Â Since SP failed miserably in the elections and does not have any representation in the parliament, AKP is the sole representer of the Islamists in the parliament. Â It could comfortably play the moderate Islamist because the conservatives couldn’t pose a serious challenge. Â Until now, I guess. Â The far-right conservatives may be few in numbers but they are also the well organized and zealous ones (think: the Tea-party guys). Â These zealots pulling off such an international trick could worry AKP. Â It is a relatively safe bet for AKP to support the flotilla though: If it succeeds it can be the Davos “One Minute” episode all over again, the Muslim world will love Erdogan twice as much. Â If it fails, it’ll be Israel’s fault and they’ll get credibility for “at least we tried.” Â My guess is that the Turkish government just turned a blind eye to what the zealots set out to do, expecting to capitalize on it or distancing itself from it depending on the outcome. Â AKP and Erdogan are akin to the principle of the school whose drama club stages a play.
Israel is already trying to turn this against Turkey and Muslims in general. Â Tactics: Â Portraying the flotilla as Islamist rather than humanitarian, portraying the Islamists aboard as radical militants,Â trying to connect the flotilla to the AKP government. Â But, what will Erdogan do? He can’t really put on a big show, it’ll probably be the usual: some strong remarks, recall the ambassador, maybe kick out the Israeli one, cancel some contracts, blah blah. Â Only to kiss and make up in a few months. Â We already know that he does not refrain from alienating Israel to surf the anti-Zionist and anti-Semitist waves in Turkey and in the Muslim world. Â Currently, Turks of all political views were outraged, so he could just capitalize on these trends. Â However, a too-harsh attack on Israel would strain the ties with the US and would move him closer to the SP line. Â That’d be a very bad move, especially after Kilicdaroglu has taken over the CHP and is revamping the party. Â They can’t afford to lose the center votes now, because come 2011 elections, each center vote they lose will probably be one more for CHP. Â I don’t think the current constituency of AKP will become more conservative and slide towards the SP line as a result of these events. Â I’ve -unfortunately- read reactions that hoped Hitler had succeeded (and quite a few of them), but this kind of anti-Semitism has been on the rise for a while now, it’s not new. Â I don’t think Erdogan would lose votes for not reacting strong enough. Â If the elections were very soon, maybe. Â But a year from now, Erdogan’s reaction for the Gaza flotilla event will matter much less. Â Any reaction discrediting the claim that he is a puppet of the US would be good enough. (On a side note: Workers and leftist organizations had been banned from Labor Day (May 1st) meetings at Taksim square for decades and had been violently thwarted from the square until this year. Â It’s amazing how when it is an anti-Israel rally, the gov’t, Istanbul’s governor, municipality or the police have no problem with Taksim square meetings. I know hypocrisy when I see one!)
One word about the US: The US cannot just abandon Israel, but Obama administration is not the all-loving brother the previous administrations had been and has objected Israeli policies at least on the WB settlements. If this event creates the necessary public opinion, the Gaza blockade can be added to that list besides the WB settlements issue. Â But of course, the US won’t allow Turkish navy to attempt a second blockade breach with NATO flag doning ships. Â Don’t expect this to get militarized.
Long story short: Israel should end the blockade, because it has become much more costly to Israel, to Gazans and now to others than any Hamas mortar attack could be. Â It’s not working anyway.