The “Freedom Flotilla,” comprised of nine ships carrying hundreds of so-called “humanitarian” pro-Palestinian activists and 10,000 tons of construction material, medical equipment, and school supplies, attempted to break Israel’s naval blockade by sailing toward the Gaza Strip. After failing to heed Israel’s warnings, the Israeli navy was forced to intercept the flotilla by boarding the ships as they arrived.
Israeli commando forces successfully boarded and gained operational control of six of the ships beginning at approximately 2 a.m. on May 31 without incident. However, as IDF forces landed on the Turkish ship, the Mavi Mamara, demonstrators onboard attacked Israeli personnel with live fire and light weaponry. According to the IDF press release, the demonstrators prepared their weapons in advance for this specific purpose.
Recent reports indicate that nine pro-Palestinian activists were killed and 34 wounded during the fighting. The wounded are currently being treated in hospitals across Israel. In addition, seven Israeli soldiers were wounded; two were listed in critical condition.
A Closer Look
Weeks ago, upon learning of the intentions of the Gaza flotilla, the Israeli government asked the organizers to deliver their cargo to the Israeli port of Ashdod where it would be inspected for weapons before being forwarded to Gaza. The Israeli announcement was a conscious decision to avoid confrontation with the pro-Palestinian activists. But the flotilla’s organizers refused because humanitarian relief for Gaza was far from their priority. “There are two possible happy endings,” a Muslim activist on board explained, “either we will reach Gaza or we will achieve martyrdom.” On board one of the ships, according to al-Jazeera, the “humanitarian” activists sang “Khaybar, Khaybar, oh Jews, the army of Muhammad will return” — a reference to the 628 massacre of Jews in Arabia at the hands of Muhammad.
Billed by its organizers as a peaceful effort to bring necessary humanitarian supplies into Gaza, the “Free Gaza” flotilla was designed to spark confrontation with Israel and support Hamas in the process. Nevertheless, the Israeli soldiers were instructed to use non-lethal means to gain the cooperation of the activists. As such, they were literally armed with paintball guns and handguns – no stun grenades or smoke grenades or any of the equipment typically used for riot or crowd control. But the “peace activists” had no intention of cooperating. An ambush awaited the Israeli soldiers who boarded the Mavi Mamara. When Israeli commandos rappelled down ropes to the deck of the ship, they were assaulted and beaten with metal poles, baseball bats, and slingshots with glass marbles by the passengers on board. According to reports, two activists stole pistols from IDF forces and opened fire on the soldiers. Once the situation became deadly, the soldiers obtained permission to fire in self-defense.
In a later search aboard the Marmara, soldiers found knives, Molotov cocktails, detonators, wood and metal clubs, slingshots and rocks, large hammers and sharp metal objects. In addition, coded messages alluding to scenarios of soldier-kidnapping and murder, as well as rifle cartridges not used by the IDF were discovered, leading defense officials to believe that there may have been firearms on board the ship when it set out from Turkey. According to the ship’s captain, guns were thrown overboard before the Israeli commandos took control. Finally, gas masks were found, illustrating that the passengers had long intended to use violence against IDF soldiers who would then be forced to use riot dispersal methods. Indeed, the activists, some of whom are directly linked to terrorist organizations, came well prepared for a fight.
The Humanitarian Crisis in Gaza?
The Free Gaza organizers claim that the purpose of the flotilla was to relieve the humanitarian crisis in the besieged Gaza Strip. Not only were these intentions shown to be a smokescreen to cover up their far more sinister intentions, but there is no evidence of a humanitarian crisis in Gaza.
Food and supplies are shipped from Israel to Gaza six days a week, brought in through aid organizations or via Gaza’s private sector. During a typical week, Israel coordinates the transfer of over 100 trucks carrying approximately 15,000 tons of supplies into Gaza. In 2009, more than 738,000 tons of food and supplies entered the Gaza Strip. Moreover, in the first quarter of 2010, 94,500 tons of supplies were transferred to the Strip: 48,000 tons of food products; 40,000 tons of wheat; 2,760 tons of rice; 1,987 tons of clothes and footwear; 553 tons of milk powder and baby food.
During the last 18 months, over one million tons of humanitarian supplies entered Gaza from Israel, equaling nearly one ton of aid for every man, woman and child. And, millions of dollars worth of international food aid continually flows through Israel to Gaza, ensuring that there is no food shortage there.
Israel also ships medical supplies into the Strip. In 2009, some 4,883 tons of medical equipment and medicine were brought in. Additionally, in the first quarter of 2010, Israel shipped 152 trucks of medical supplies and equipment into Gaza.
Click here to see pictures of the ample supplies in Gaza markets.
If the flotilla was about humanitarian issues, then the 10,000 tons of material brought by the group – which includes expired medicine – represents a drop in the bucket compared to Israel’s typical weekly transfer of 15,000 tons of humanitarian aid. Furthermore, if the aid was intended to reach Palestinians in Gaza expeditiously, they would have sailed for the Israeli port of Ashdod where the material would be forwarded to Gaza after security screening.
The real crisis in Gaza is that it’s ruled by the Hamas terrorist organization. Upon Israel’s attempt to transfer the flotilla’s screened goods to Gaza one day after the raid, Hamas refused the materials’ entry. To date, the 10,000-ton cargo of the seven ships has yet to reach Palestinians.
Terrorist Financing and the Flotilla
A closer look at who financed the so-called “Free Gaza” flotilla reveals that far from being financed as a mission of peace by peacenik humanitarians, the effort was instead funded by a Turkish group with ties to Hamas and al-Qaeda with the expressed goal of strengthening Hamas politically and militarily. It is therefore not surprising that those financing the operation were aiming for a confrontation.
The Humanitarian Relief Fund (Islan Haklary Ve Hurriyetleri Vakfi in Turkish) or IHH was established in 1992. Although billing itself as a force for good, both French and American intelligence agencies took notice of their radical Islamist activities by 1996. A French intelligence report concluded that IHH president Bulent Yildrim was directly involved in “recruit[ing] veteran soldiers in anticipation of the coming holy war [jihad]. In particular, some men were sent into war zones in Muslim countries in order to acquire combat experience.” The report also noted that IHH provided financial support “as well as caches of firearms, knives, and pre-fabricated explosives” in an effort to obtain “political support from these countries.” Similarly, a 1996 CIA report documented the IHH as a charity with ties to “Iran and Algerian groups.”
The Turkish nonprofit is a member of the Union of Good (Ittilaf al-Khair in Arabic), a Saudi-based umbrella organization known to finance terrorism. According to Palestinian intelligence in 2002, this organization “is considered—with regard to material support—one of the biggest Hamas supporters.”
As such, Israel outlawed the Union of Good in February 2002 (along with 35 other Islamist charities worldwide), and the United States named it a specially designated global terrorist entity in November 2008. According to the U.S. Treasury Department, the Union of Good was created by the Hamas leadership “in order to facilitate the transfer of funds to Hamas. Intelligence serving as the foundation for the U.S. designation noted that the group “facilitates the transfer of tens of millions of dollars a year to Hamas-managed associations.” It also “acts as a broker for Hamas by facilitating financial transfers between a web of charitable organizations…and Hamas-controlled organizations in the West Bank and Gaza.”
That a member of the Union of Good was involved in the recent flotilla should not be surprising. After all, according to statements issued by the U.S. government, the primary purpose behind the founding of the Union of Good by Hamas leaders was “to strengthen Hamas’ political and military position in the West Bank and Gaza, including by: (i) diverting charitable donations to support Hamas members and the families of terrorist operatives; and (ii) dispensing social welfare and other charitable services on behalf of Hamas.”
The “Free Gaza” flotilla is endorsed by over 200 organizations comprised of Jewish anti-Israel groups as well as Christian, Islamic and non-religious anti-Israel groups including the International Solidarity Movement, Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), Friends of Al-Aqsa, Norman Finkelstein, and Noam Chomsky.
That the one problem ship originated from Turkey, while once unthinkable, is no longer a surprise. Since becoming Prime Minister in 2003, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, leader of Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AK Parti), has altered Turkey’s course toward a more Islamist orientation. Foreign policy in the hands of Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who aspires for Turkey to regain its former leadership of the Middle East, has lead Ankara to insert itself into issues such as Iran’s nuclear buildup and Gaza’s ‘Freedom Flotilla’ with its backing for IHH.
In fact, the Erdoğan government had a strong hand in the events that carried out aboard the Mavi Marmara. While the majority of the ship’s 500 passengers boarded in Antalya and were inspected for weapons, 40 IHH operatives boarded the ship at Istanbul without undergoing a security check. According to passengers, including IHH operatives, the IHH has close relations with Prime Minister Erdoğan, and the Turkish government was directly involved in the flotilla’s preparations.
As NATO’s only Muslim member, Turkey has been a key U.S. ally in the Middle East. However, with negotiations for entry into the EU frozen, Erdoğan seems interested in aligning Turkey with Iran and Syria, with the hopes of establishing itself as an Islamist alternative to American power. According to Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren, “Our policy has not changed but Turkey’s policy has changed, very much, over the last few years.” He continued, “Under a different government with an Islamic orientation, Turkey has turned away from the West.” Indeed, just last week Erdoğan said he doesn’t consider Hamas a terrorist organization.
The Legal Basis for Israel’s Blockade
Israel imposed a blockade of Gaza to prevent weapons from reaching Hamas, the ruling radical Islamic regime there that continues to wage war on Israeli civilians. Egypt also has blockaded the strip, hoping to choke off weapons to Hamas, which it also views as a threat. The blockade exists for a good reason – thousands of rockets have been launched from Gaza into Israel with the aim of killing and maiming civilians.
Contrary to what the pro-Palestinian activists state and the mainstream media questions, Israel has the legal right and moral responsibility to keep the blockade of Gaza in place. Moreover, its decision to board the flotilla ships Monday morning was consistent with international law.
According to international law, a maritime blockade may be imposed as part of an armed conflict at sea, and a vessel that violates or attempts to violate a maritime blockade may be captured or attacked, even in international waters if that vessel is clearly heading toward the blockaded area. The legal basis is explained in Section V of the San Remo Manual on International Law Applicable to Armed Conflicts at Sea, June 12, 1994. Israel is currently in a state of war with Hamas, who repeatedly bombs civilian targets in Israel with weapons smuggled into Gaza via the sea. For this reason, Israel imposed its blockade on Gaza in 2007.
Indeed, the United States and England’s naval manuals recognize the maritime blockade and set forth the various criteria that make a blockade valid, including the requirement to give due notice of the existence of the blockade. Israel publicized the existence of its blockade and its precise coordinates, and repeatedly notified the organizers of the Gaza flotilla.
Israeli actions were also consistent with previous agreements between the two parties. In May 1994, the State of Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization signed the Gaza-Jericho Agreement, which outlined Israel’s plan to withdraw from the two regions. According to Article XI, Section B of the agreement: “…Israel Navy vessels…may take any measures necessary against vessels suspected of being used for terrorist activities or for smuggling arms, ammunition, drugs, goods, or for any other illegal activity…”
The Free Gaza flotilla had nothing to do with humanitarian aid or helping the Palestinian people. It was organized and financed by terrorist supporters and it achieved its goal by creating an international outcry in capitals around the globe and in the United Nations. International media outlets have again demonstrated that their knee-jerk reaction is to blame Israel first and (maybe) ask questions later.
Nevertheless, rarely has there been a case that is so black and white when it comes to the question of “what happened?” The flotilla was designed to spark confrontation with Israel and sadly, it did. Those that call on Israel to let this or any other flotilla or convoy enter freely into Gaza without first passing through security inspections are simply asking Israel to do something that no other country would ever do. The blockade exists to prevent Hamas from acquiring more weapons. This is not a hypothetical concern but reality. One need look no further than the recent Francorp ship seized by Israel near Cyprus with Iranian arms or the Karine A episode of 2002 to appreciate the logic of this assumption. The unfortunate reality learned from this clear-cut case is how deeply-seated is the desire to delegitimize and blame Israel in foreign capitals and in media outlets worldwide.
Matthew RJ Brodsky is the Director of Policy and Samara Greenberg is a Research Associate at the Jewish Policy Center.