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    Middle East
     Jun 2, 2010
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 they were.

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 department.

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 tricky situations.

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 show.

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 here.

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