Massacre at sea

Print edition : July 02, 2010
in Bahrain

Israeli commandos approaching one of the six ships bound for Gaza, in the Mediterranean Sea on May 31.-URIEL SINAI/POOL /REUTERS

THE international outcry against Israel's pre-dawn assault on a humanitarian aid flotilla bound for Gaza has been growing louder by the day, suggesting that West Asia is poised for a major change.

At least nine pro-Palestinian activists on board the aid ship Mavi Marmara were shot dead by Israeli commandos who slithered down from helicopters to raid the ship. Within hours of the bloody assault, a stunned United Nations Security Council convened a session in New York to take stock of the situation.

Unlike on earlier occasions, the die was cast this time, for Israeli commandos had assaulted not the defenceless and the weak, but influential people, some of whom were drawn from the parliaments of powerful European countries. Former diplomats and well-known intellectuals such as the Swedish writer Henning Mankell were on board the Freedom Flotilla, the six-ship convoy organised by the Free Gaza movement to highlight, through non-violent means, the injustice of Israel's suffocating siege of Gaza, which has been on for the past three years.

Israel's blundering Rambos played directly into the hands of the international organisers of the campaign, behind which Turkey played a prominent part. By going on the rampage and killing, among others, a Turkish-origin American citizen, the Israeli commandos set off a volcano of protests and condemnations throughout the world, including the West.

The wave of anger found its way into the corridors of the Security Council, which met on May 31, the day of the incident. The Security Council's presidential statement condemned the assault and deplored the consequent loss of lives. It insisted that Israel free the 480 activists on board whom it had taken captive and release the ships that it had seized. It also instructed Israel to lift the embargo on Gaza, a coastal strip, as it was not sustainable.

The implications of the presidential statement are surprising. Unlike most occasions in the past, the United States did not come to Israel's rescue this time despite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's frantic call to U.S. President Barack Obama, seeking an American veto. The U.S., however, did water down the language of the draft that the Turks and the Arabs had favoured but without diluting its essence.

Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey's energetic Foreign Minister and a rising star on the international diplomatic horizon, addressed the session and made a powerful case for changing the international script on dealing with Israel.

European leaders also did not mince words in slamming the Israeli action. It is clearer than ever that Israel's restrictions on access to Gaza must be lifted in line with Security Council Resolution 1860, said Mark Lyall Grant, the British Ambassador to the U.N. Britain's unambiguous response was in line with the recent change of guard in London. Nick Clegg, Liberal Democrat leader and the new British Deputy Prime Minister, is a known critic of Israeli policies in the Palestinian territories.

The European Union (E.U.) also condemned the violence and demanded an immediate, full and impartial inquiry into the events and the circumstances surrounding it. It stressed that it did not accept the continued policy of closure, calling it unacceptable and politically counter productive.

The Russian Foreign Ministry heaped condemnation on Israel over the incident. It called the use of weapons against citizens and the seizing of ships in open waters with no legal grounds a gross violation of commonly accepted international legal norms. It added that the events proved the necessity to halt the Gaza blockade.

For once the Israeli propaganda machine, which went into customary overdrive, failed to make a decisive impact. A stream of eyewitness accounts simply did not corroborate the Israeli assertion that its commandos had killed in self-defence or that the ship that was attacked was packed with Al Qaeda sympathisers.

In his account, Jamal Elshayal, a correspondent of Al Jazeera's English television channel, who was on board the Mavi Marmara, said that the Israelis had started firing even before they boarded the ship. He saw a passenger being shot dead.

In her narrative, which appeared in the pan-Arab daily Alsharq al-Awsat, Haneen Zoabi, a Palestinian-Arab citizen from Israel, said that there were no plans for resistance on the ship. The fighting that took place came as a natural response in self-defence, and this is something that could have happened at any time or place for when somebody finds themselves under attack, they find themselves in a natural manner trying to defend their lives by all available means.

Turkey's clout

The visible strains in Europe's ties with Israel and the sourness that has crept into the Washington-Tel Aviv equation are undermining the disproportionately heavy clout that Israel has exercised globally and within the region until now. Israel's consequent relative weakness has meant that new players such as Turkey are set to expand their influence in the region's political space.

Over the past few weeks, Turkey has caught the imagination of people all over the world, particularly in West Asia. This is not something that has happened overnight. The government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has remained focussed on finding a prominent place for Turkey in the West Asian discourse in the past few years. In order to emerge as a regional heavyweight, it has riveted its attention on Gaza, that oppressed piece of land the developments in which stir the collective consciousness of the people of the region and echo powerfully in other parts of the globe.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan visiting an activist who was injured in the Israeli assault, in a hospital in Ankara on June 3.-HO/PRIME MINISTER'S OFFICE/AFP

Turkey emerged out of the shadows when it boldly backed Palestinians during the winter war in Gaza between Israel and Hamas in 2008-09. As Israeli phosphorous bombs rained on Gaza's civilians and Israeli planes demolished buildings, Turkey was unrestrained in its condemnation of these attacks. The development provided Turkey a means to build bridges with other regional players like Iran, Syria and Qatar, who also sided with Gaza when it came under heavy Israeli fire. The Turkish Prime Minister bolstered his pro-Palestinian image further when he walked out of the 2009 World Economic Forum meeting in Davos after a public spat with Israeli President Shimon Peres.

Turkey has now managed to separate itself completely from Israel, its long-time strategic and military ally, by assuming the moral high ground following the Mavi Marmara incident.

In words that are bound to warm hearts on the Arab street and elsewhere in the region, the Turkish Prime Minister condemned the Israeli attack as morally and religiously unacceptable. Addressing workers of his AK Party in the Turkish city of Konya on June 4, Erdogan said: You [Israel] killed 19-year-old Furkan Dogan brutally. Which faith, which holy book, can be an excuse for killing him? Erdogan was referring to the youngest of the nine activists killed on board the Mavi Marmara, which was flying the Turkish flag at the time of the attack.

Erdogan said: I am speaking to them in their own language. The sixth commandment says, Thou shalt not kill.' Did you not understand? I'll say it again. I say in English, You shall not kill.' Did you still not understand? So I'll say to you in your own language. I say in Hebrew, Lo Tirtzakh.'

Turkish President Abdullah Gul said that the Israeli assault was unforgivable. It is not an issue that can be forgotten... or be covered up.... Turkey will never forgive this attack. He added that the incident had left an irreparable and deep scar on Turkish-Israeli relationship.

Bulent Arinc, Turkey's Deputy Prime Minister, said on June 4 that his country was scaling down its economic and military ties with Israel.

Notwithstanding the clout exercised by the Israeli lobby, the West, especially Europe, is likely to welcome at some stage Turkey's strategic assertion in the region. Turkey has all the attributes required to help stabilise a resource-rich but turbulent region not far from the shores of Europe.

First, Turkey is emerging as a perfect example of the espousal of moderate Islam, which is both powerful and influential. Its credibility under the present dispensation is impeccable, and its influence in West Asia is on the rise. Consequently, Turkey presents the perfect antidote to the virulence of violent Islamist extremism of the Al Qaeda variety.

Second, Turkey is an established democracy as well as a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) factors that are bound to appeal to the Western consciousness.

Third, Turkey is central to Europe's quest to achieve energy security. For instance, the giant Nabucco pipeline, which has been planned to supply Central Asian gas to Europe, has to pass through the Turkish corridor before reaching the European mainland.

Turkey, which is already in partnership with Brazil in tackling the Iranian nuclear question, can expect Europe to welcome its contribution to defusing tensions in that regard.

Despite its extremely close bonding with Israel and the enormous influence that groups such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) can have on the U.S. political establishment including Congress, Washington will find it untenable to distance itself from Turkey in case a political choice between Turkey and Israel has to be made. Turkey is at the heart of the U.S. military assertion in Iraq and Afghanistan. The bulk of U.S. war material and troops funnel through Turkey's Incirlik Air Base before entering Iraq. Turkish troops are deployed in significant numbers in Afghanistan as part of the NATO force. President Obama already views Turkey as a gateway to the Muslim world.

Turkey's larger accommodation in a Western setting is mutually reinforcing and is bound to consolidate its clout further in other parts of West Asia, especially in areas where Western influence is minimal. Turkey has already established special ties with its neighbour Syria, and the two countries have signed a visa-free regime for their citizens. It has also been deeply engaged with Iran, which in turn is an ally of Syria and Lebanon. Turkey's emergence in a leadership role is certain to have, over time, a profound impact on Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood, a party at loggerheads with the ageing regime of President Hosni Mubarak, has fully backed the Gaza aid mission spearheaded by Turkey.

The imprudent Israeli attack on Freedom Flotilla, which led to the tragic loss of many lives, was truly unnecessary and avoidable. It has put on notice Israel's strategic underpinnings as a core Western ally in West Asia. Turkey's emergence as the nucleus of a new political order quite silently, and comfortably in sync with Europe and the Arab world, now holds the exciting promise of generating a lasting and meaningful change in the region.

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