Israel founders in international waters
By Simon Thurlow
Until Monday morning, the Mavi Marmara (Blue Marmara) had an
undistinguished, if industrious, career. Relentlessly plying Istanbul's
passenger routes, the ship carried hundreds of thousands of commuters and
holidaymakers through the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmara. It is doubtful
whether any of those passengers would have remembered her name; they were
certainly not aware that they were on board one of a very select group of
sea-going vessels that have permanently altered world politics. The list
includes the HMS Victory, the Bismarck, the General Belgrano
- and now the Mavi Marmara.
Nearing the end of her utility as a commercial vessel, she was sold this year
by the state-owned Istanbul Fast Ferries Company for just US$1.25 million. The
ship's new owners were the IHH
Insani Yardim Vakfi (The Foundation of Humanitarian Relief), a Turkish
non-governmental organization that focuses on Palestine, and particularly Gaza.
Little is known about the group; various reports allege they are Islamists and
have close ties to Hamas and al-Qaeda. The group itself strongly denies such
ties. What is more likely is that the IHH has some form of backing from Ankara.
Turkey is not famed for the strength of its civil society, and it is unlikely
that any group would have been able to take such bold steps against Israel
without the private support of someone in power.
It was under the auspices of the IHH - as part of the Free Gaza flotilla - that
the Mavi Marmara found herself sailing towards Gaza, laden with medical
equipment, books and building materials, as well as a number of dignitaries
including members of various parliaments, a Holocaust survivor and a Nobel
peace prize laureate.
The plan was to bust the three-year blockade that Israel has enforced around
the Palestinian territory - a blockade designed to strangle the economic life
out of the Gaza Strip and force Hamas from power - by simply steaming into the
port at Gaza City. The logic of the organizations involved was that there was
very little that Israel could do to forcibly halt nine unarmed ships. How wrong
It was at 4:30am Israeli time on Monday morning that the Mavi Marmara ceased
to be just another Turkish ferry boat. The details remain unclear, but the
basic facts are that the ship was boarded by Israeli forces in international
waters. After a brief tussle, 19 passengers were dead, and the ship was no
longer heading for Gaza, but for the Israeli port of Ashdod. Israeli and Middle
East politics had changed forever.
The exact sequence of events will be debated for months - who struck the first
blow, who was armed and with what, when the white flag was raised, etc. None of
these details will alter the consequences.
For Israel, the Mavi Marmara is only the latest - and biggest - of a
series of public relations disasters that have begun to change international
perceptions of the country. Benjamin Netanyahu's cool reception from United
States President Barack Obama; Mossad's alleged involvement in the
assassination of a top Hamas figure in Dubai; the announcement of new
settlements during US Vice President Joe Biden's Jerusalem trip; all have added
up to a perception that Israel is losing its touch in the public relations
For Israel's detractors, this is merely the country finally revealing its true
colors. For Israel's sympathizers, it is evidence that Netanyahu's government
does not have the tact and subtlety to handle Israel's delicate international
relations, and certainly not the know-how to evolve its strategies to deal
Certainly, the manner of the ocean raid supports this analysis. Israel made a
crucial mistake in intercepting the boat in international waters; under
international law, their actions amount to little more than piracy. Indeed, the
whole operation was probably a mistake. Had they just allowed the Free Gaza
Flotilla through, a few headlines would have been generated and then forgotten.
Instead, Israel has focused the world's attention on Gaza, and further
alienated its key allies. Israel's opponents will be delighted at another
chance to assume the moral high ground. Emerging first among them is Turkey,
traditionally Israel's major ally in the region. Under the leadership of Prime
Minister Tayyip Reccep Erdogan, ties between the two countries have already
been feeling the strain - recent incidents include Erdogan's outburst in Davos,
where he stormed out of a panel discussion with President Shimon Peres over
Israel's actions in Gaza, and the bizarre meeting where Israel's Deputy Foreign
Minister made the Turkish ambassador sit on a lower chair, and refused to shake
his hand, as a public rebuke for alleged anti-Semitism in a Turkish television
Turkey's response to the Mavi Marmara incident was swift and
unexpectedly harsh: Israel was guilty of "state terrorism", said Erdogan,
currently on a state visit to South America (which itself was not without
controversy; he canceled his Argentina leg because the Buenos Aires
municipality decided to scrap the planned unveiling of a statue of Turkish
founding father Ataturk, apparently due to Armenian pressure).
Turkey's positioning in the next few days will be critical; this incident may
well be the catalyst for the country to finally assume the Arab leadership
mantle that Ataturk abandoned so whole-heartedly. Turkey has elections in a
year, and for the first time since 2002 they may be competitive; a sex scandal
means the opposition party has a fresh, popular leader, with polls already
showing much increased support. An aggressive foreign policy always plays well
with the electorate; just ask George W Bush.
The Mavi Marmara is now docked in Ashdod, alongside the other eight
ships of the Free Gaza flotilla. Israel has promised to send the supplies it
carried to Gaza (but only those supplies that comply with existing Israeli
regulations). The ships' passengers have been detained; they will be offered
immediate deportation or the chance to fight their cases in Israeli courts.
Despite the tragic loss of life, the activists in detention know that they have
struck a crucial blow against Israel's siege of Gaza. For as a short term
measure, the raid of the Mavi Marmara proved that the blockade of Gaza
is still very much in force; in the long term, however, it will be remembered
as the incident that precipitated its demise.
Simon Thurlow is a specialist in international relations, with particular
emphasis on the Middle East and Africa. To read his blog, please click