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Seeking peace, planting hatred

HDN | 6/11/2010 12:00:00 AM | MURAT ONUR

One doesn’t need a report to see the senseless raid operation and the failed Gaza blockade, or to notice the Turkish government’s responsibility and absurd reaction to the incident.

Controversy over the Gaza flotilla raid on May 31 will continue even after international and Israeli reports become available. However, one doesn’t need a report to see the senseless raid operation and the failed Gaza blockade, or to notice the Turkish government’s responsibility and absurd reaction to the incident, as well as its eagerness to manipulate foreign policy for political support.

Israel argues its forces boarded the Gaza flotilla ships because the organizers intended to break the blockade and that it had the right to inspect the cargo as Israel is at war with Hamas. However, serious legal questions remain on the IDF operation against an unarmed ship in international waters almost 80 miles off the coast of Israel and outside the borders of the self-imposed and internationally denounced Gaza blockade.

More importantly, the flotilla raid exposed the disproportionate use of military force by the Israeli government. For Israel, its soldiers opened fire to defend themselves from a pre-mediated attack by a violent group. Flotilla organizers, on the other hand, argue it was the passengers who acted in self-defense because Israeli forces attacked their ship in international waters. Regardless of the accounts, the Israeli government did authorize the use of excessive force and ordered a full-scale operation involving commando units, gunboats, and helicopters against an unarmed boat. According to a former British special forces operative, “the Israelis tried to crack a nut with a sledgehammer” by taking on an unarmed ship.

The IDF sent out counter-terrorism units against a ship that doesn’t belong to a nation or a group Israel is at war with. The ship did not threaten human life, Israeli interest or its citizens. An operation that could have been carried out by the Coast Guard was given to navy commandos who are trained and equipped to handle much more critical situations where human life or national security is at stake. When the IDF soldiers faced resistance (or violence) on board, all they had was their weapons to defend themselves. They were neither equipped nor trained in crowd and riot control.

Israel seems determined to prove that the incident took place because of a pre-planned attack orchestrated by terrorists (or, as they are called in later statements, by terrorist sympathizers). Official statements changed several times and significant contradictions exist with witness accounts. At first, the IDF expressed that its forces were attacked with “firearms” from the Mavi Marmara and acted in self-defense. Then, Israel announced that firearms were found on board.

Immediately after the incident, the IDF confiscated all footage and Israel waged a “YouTube War.” Israeli government sources have been releasing videos - which support the Israeli version of the incident – that contradict the reports of almost all witnesses. In fact, the IDF even serviced doctored versions of radio transmissions between the Israeli Navy vessels and the Flotilla ships in which Mavi Marmara passengers were portrayed as telling the Israeli Navy vessel to “go back to Auschwitz.” In the original release, Mavi Marmara reply to Israeli Navy radio message to change course was “Negative, Negative … Our destination is Gaza.” Since Israel has all the footage, serious concerns remain whether all videos will be released, as Israel decides what to show.

When Israel was rushing to make sense of the operation, Ankara acted quickly and called on the international community to pressure Israel. Ankara demands an international investigation on the raid. But findings could demonstrate a very different picture than the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, and the media portrayed in Turkey. Serious questions remain unanswered about the Turkish government’s role in the incident and its handling of the developments after the May 31 raid.

According to some conservative newspapers, some people joined the aid ship hoping to become shahids, or martyrs. Turkey completely ignores the fact that some passengers actually engaged in active, rather than passive, resistance by using knives, iron sticks and slingshots. The government also dismissed the responsibility of the IHH, an Islamic charity that owns Mavi Marmara. Serious concerns remain regarding the motives behind the organizers and the authorities that allowed (or encouraged) people who wanted to become martyrs or who brought knives.

To critics, the AKP government, which has been doing everything within its power to provoke the right-wing groups in Israel, finally found the opportunity to rally masses against the Jewish state. It didn’t take long for the AKP to portray the incident as a matter of national pride and make it a top responsibility of Turkish foreign policy. At the same time, questions raised were immediately labeled as “Tel Aviv’s advocacy” by the pro-government media, in fact, by Prime Minister Erdoğan himself.

But, Turkey did not come to this point over night. In the last couple years, conspiracy theories linking Israel to almost all the problems Turkey faces became so widespread that even serious media outlets followed the trend. The Israeli government, on the other hand, did everything possible to escalate tensions in the region. It put more pressure on the Palestinian authority, waged war against Hamas in densely populated Gaza, and expanded settlements in East Jerusalem. While Turks remained critical of the Israelis policies, anger replaced criticism after Israeli soldiers killed nine Turks in the Mediterranean.

During the burial ceremonies signs glorified the shahids and banners read pro-Hamas statements. Demonstrations (organized by ultraconservative Saadet Party and the IHH) rather than supporting the Palestinian cause or protesting the killings, turned into political rallies where protestors waved Hezbollah and Hamas flags. Nevertheless, while thousands attended the demonstrations, many in Turkey are still confused about Hezbollah flags and men with Hamas headbands in demonstrations that were supposedly held to protest Israel’s operation.

Israel will most likely fail to provide credible evidence to support its account of the raid. Evidence and investigations aside, the fleet incident resurfaced concerns about the motivations behind the AKP foreign policy and showed the abuse of country’s national interests and foreign relations for political gain. In Israel, it demonstrated the unconditional support by the right-wing and conservative groups to the irrational policies and the ‘commando spirit’ haunting the government. Yet, perhaps the worst effect of the Gaza flotilla raid is the hatred planted in national memories of two peoples that were once called friends.

* Murat Onur is a Washington-based Defense Analyst and a graduate student of Security Studies at the George Washington University.

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