Israel and the Gaza Fiasco: Brinksmanship where no one blinks
The basic series of events is simple to outline, but complex. Israel unilaterally pulled out of Gaza, creating tensions within Israel as the Israeli government forced the dismantling of Jewish settlements in Gaza, the right thing to do but not popular among right wingers in Israel. In the next Palestinian election Hamas, whose charter officially denies the existence of Israel and calls for its destruction, won fair and square, becoming not just a terrorist organization, but a legitimate part of the Palestinian government.
Under such circumstances, the best outcome is that the former terrorist/guerrilla organization successfully makes the transition to effective and reasonable government. Arguably the Sandinistas and ANC made similar transitions, though the parallels aren't exact. Much as I hated Hamas, I recognized the legitimacy of their election and hoped they would make a transition to a legitimate government.
This didn't happen. Hamas made a partial offer to end attacks on Israel and recognize the legitimacy of Israel (and I think it could have been the basis of genuine discussion, though Hamas would have had be willing to compromise) but the US under Bush imposed sanctions on Palestine. At the same time, Hamas and Fatah began fighting, though reached an agreement for a coalition government. However fighting between Israel and Hamas escalated (with each side blaming the other) at the same time. This led to a renewal of civil war between Hamas and Fatah which left Gaza in Hamas hands and the West Bank in Fatah hands. Israel then imposed a blockade on Hamas controlled Gaza as Hamas sanctioned rocket attacks against Israeli civilians. One of the main justifications for the blockade was to prevent supplies for the rockets from reaching Gaza. Meanwhile, Fatah controlled West Bank has been largely calm, though Israel has failed to respond to West Bank calm with something like...oh, stopping the illegal settlements. After an outright invasion of Gaza by Israel, the rocket attacks stopped but the blockade has continued.
The Free Gaza Movement (FGM) started as an attempt to break the blockade, arguing that it was inhumane and illegal. Background on FGM (mostly sympathetic) can be found in this Nation article. In general their flotillas have been quietly allowed to do their thing, though the IDF and right wingers in Israel have always wanted Israel to use force and stop them.
The issues in question are as follows:
1.) Is the blockade legal?
2.) If the blockade is legal, is it legal for Israeli forces to board a ship in international waters>
3.) Is FGM linked indirectly to arms smugglers supplying weapons to Hamas?
4.) Did either side do its best to prevent confrontation or did they both seek confrontation?
5.) Did Israel use excessive force?
International waters are notorious for ambiguous legal issues. Two things are clear: a.) Nations ARE legally allowed to blockade other nations, though the details are HUGELY ambiguous. b.) in general one nation is NOT able to board another nation's ship in international waters UNLESS arms smuggling is suspected.
Officially Hamas does not recognize Israel, though when they won the election they unofficially mitigated that stand. Israel outright refuses to recognize the legitimacy of Hamas. Both sides have exchanged fire on the other. In essence a state of war exists between Gaza and Israel. Blockades are common tactics in war, including British blockades of Germany in both World Wars.
Is the Israeli blockade legal? Was their boarding of the ship legal? Both are in the realm of the ambiguities of the high seas. Here is an article that concludes Israel probably did not act legally in boarding the ship. But Alan Dershowitz wrote an article that argues that, though ill advised, the blockade and boarding WERE solidly legal. It seems an open question to me. On the one hand, blockading an enemy in war (and Israel claims that Gaza's rocket attacks are acts of war and that Hamas is a terrorist organization, a claim supported by the EU and US) is common and accepted. On the other hand there is always argument over how a blockade applies to neutral nations. I should point out that traditionally (with the clear exception of during the Civil War) the United States government has stood up for the rights of neutrals to trade with belligerents in a war. In fact violation of the neutrality of American ships during the Napoleonic wars and WW I were major issues that contributed to the War of 1812 and America's entry into WW I.
The legality of the boarding is PARTLY dependent on the legality of the blockade, but it also is dependent on whether the FGM is linked to arms smuggling.
In general (as described in the Nation article I link to above) it is clear that the FGM, whether I agree with them or not, is a legitimate humanitarian organization founded by peace activists. However, one organization connected to FGM, the Turkish charity IHH, has been accused by Israel, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Danish Institute for International Studies of being linked to terrorist organizations and of arms smuggling (which in itself would be legal justification for Israel's boarding the ships). I am not sure how strong the evidence is. The basis for the claim seems to be the following (from a Washington Institute for Near East Policy article):
A French intelligence report concluded that in the mid-1990s, 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." Foreshadowing IHH's role in this weekend's aid flotilla to Gaza, the French report 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." IHH phone records in Istanbul reportedly included repeated telephone calls in 1996 to an al-Qaeda guesthouse in Italy and to North African terrorists active in Europe.
In addition, a 1996 CIA report on terrorist abuse of charities, declassified after the September 11 attacks, documented IHH as a charity with ties to "Iran and Algerian groups." According to the report, the director of the IHH office in Sarajevo "has been linked to Iranian operatives." The report described "the terrorist-related activities and linkages" of fifteen selected "Islamic NGOs," noting that "individuals connected to some of these NGOs have plotted to kidnap or kill U.S. personnel." And according to French court documents, IHH was the subject of a Turkish criminal investigation in late 1997 when sources revealed that leaders of the group were purchasing automatic weapons from other regional Islamist militant groups. Based on an analysis of seized IHH documents, Turkish authorities concluded that "detained members of IHH were going to fight in Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Chechnya."
IHH is a member of the "Union of Good" (Itelaf al-Khair, also known as the "Charity Coalition"). According to Palestinian intelligence, this organization "is considered -- with regard to material support -- one of the biggest Hamas supporters." Israel outlawed the Union of Good in February 2002, 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 underpinning 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."
I should note that the Washington Institute for Near East Policy is considered biased towards Israel by most, but it has also been criticized by Zionist organizations for ties to Fatah as early as 2003.
It sounds to me like, whether it was advisable or not, as Dershowitz argues, the boarding had at least arguable legal backing based on the arms smuggling connection, though again see the Daily Kos article for a counterpoint.
Could the confrontation be avoided? The answer is clearly yes, but it is equally clear that BOTH sides wanted confrontation, though not necessarily bloodshed.
Israel has in the past handled FGM flotillas differently. From the Nation article mentioned above:
It turns out there was a robust debate within the Israeli government. The military wanted to stop the FGM by whatever means necessary. The foreign ministry argued that doing so would only play into the hands of the activists by making them martyrs and making Israel look brutal in the eyes of the world. Further, they predicted that a peaceful end to the journey would diminish interest by the international media. This judgment was partially redeemed by the almost complete lack of coverage of the trip in the US media...
I think two things led to things being handled differently this time. A more right wing government in Israel sided with the IDF, insisting on a strict enforcement of the blockade. But also, the response to the flotilla allowed through previously was not as muted as Israel had hoped. Continued from the same Nation article:
Israel's decision not to intervene surprised and shocked the FGM, making for a wild celebration as the boats docked in Gaza's tiny harbor on Saturday, August 24. With them, they brought 200 hearing aids for Gaza children and 5,000 balloons. Most Gazans were unfazed by the token humanitarian aid and focused on the symbolic significance of breaking the siege. For them, the impact of this event was akin to Hamas's breaking the international boundary separating Gaza from Egypt several months earlier. It meant breaking through a psychological as well as a physical barrier. It meant showing that a group of unarmed peace activists could successfully disrupt the Israeli occupation.
So Israel's right wing government was going to insist on strict enforcement at the risk of brinksmanship. But the FGM also passed up a way of defusing the situation that could also have brought them some great publicity. Noam Shalit, the father of kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, made FGM an offer that could have put Netanyahu in a VERY difficult position, but they turned it down:
Noam Shalit, the father of kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, offered what sounded like a pretty good deal for the group that calls itself the “Free Gaza Movement..."
He said he would give the convoy his stamp of approval and use his considerable moral leverage to pressure Israel to allow the convoy to continue to Gaza — if the organizers of the cruise agreed to make contact with his son:Attorney Nick Kaufman, who approached the Free Gaza Movement on behalf of the kidnapped soldier’s family, told Ynet that he offered the flotilla’s organizers the family’s full support, provided that “in addition to their demand that Israel lift its blockade they will urge Hamas to allow the soldier to receive letters and food packages from his family and allow international organizations to visit him.”
According to Kaufman, he was referred to the movement’s legal counsel, who rejected the offer. “I thought this movement supports human rights, as it claims, but according to the reaction it seems that it is only interested in provocation and expressing support for a terror group that doesn’t really care about human rights,” said the attorney.
...Almost immediately after the Israeli media announced that [the offer] had been extended, it was refused [by FGM]
To me Israel's current government is a horrible right wing regime that really wants to use brutal methods to keep Palestinians down. They may well have the "River to the Sea" mentailty favoring Israeli takeover of all Palestinian land. It is inevitable that such a government will use violence whether or not warrented. On the other hand, Hamas is, (unlike Hezbollah who I may not like but who only target military targets) a terrorist organization that has allowed and probably supported the use of rockets and mortars against Israeli citizens. Officially, and probably genuinely, Hamas also has a "river to the sea" mentality that wants to destroy Israel.
This leads to a situation where violence and possibly war is almost inevitable. It is unclear to me if the blockade is clearly legal. I lean towards yes, but even given that it is unclear to me how neutrals, such as Turkey, should be treated regarding such a blockade. Boarding the ship is also of dubious legality, though IF there is genuine evidence that one of the charities connected with the FGM IS linked to arms smuggling (and I don't know how strong the evidence is) then it could well be legal as arms smuggling is the main justification for boarding a ship in international waters. It would be VERY interesting to see what would have happend if FGM took the deal that would have gotten them support from Noam Shalit...it would be hard for the Israeli government to board them but it also would mean compromising the blockade and the arms smuggling justification. I think the FGM should have taken the deal. It would have been a huge PR coup for them and put Netanyahu in a situation he really couldn't win.
Once the confrontation was definite, due to the actions of both sides, two things were clear. a.) Israel was going to have a PR nightmare (largely of their own making) and b.) resistance by the flotilla was only going to lead to injuries and death. IDF training emphasizes minimizing casualties and the IDF went in initially with non-lethal weapons. But the IDF also has the mentality of responding to force with overwhelming (many would say excessive) force and once resistance was encountered, the order came down to use their regular armaments.
Who is right and who is wrong? I can't really justify the actions of either side since it is clear to me that both sides wanted confrontation, though NOT, I believe, deaths. I don't think either side wanted the confrontation to go so far, but it is inevitable that it would once the confrontation began.
Bottom line is I see no good guys in this, just different shades of people who blundered either blindly or intentionally into a situation where bloodshed was almost inevitable. Ultimately Hamas and the Israeli right wing are to blame, but mistakes (in my mind dumb mistakes) were made by others along the way as well.