How Israel and its allies thwarted Gaza aid flotilla

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 19, 2011 

JERUSALEM — The Israeli navy towed the French yacht Dignite-Al Karame away from the Gaza Strip Tuesday afternoon in an anticlimactic end to the barrage of ships that activists had hoped to send to Gaza this summer to draw attention to Israel's ongoing military closure of the Palestinian coastal strip.

A similar flotilla last year ended in an Israeli commando raid that killed nine Turkish activists and drew worldwide condemnation, forcing Israel to ease restrictions on the passage of some goods to Gaza. This year, activists from the United States, Turkey, France and other nations had promised to send nearly a dozen ships — twice as many as the year before — and said that "thousands" had signed up to participate.

Over the last month, however, the planned flotilla was slowly reduced to a single French boat carrying 16 passengers. Through what pro-Gaza activists called "coercion, sabotage and other malicious means," Israel and its allies, including the Obama administration, stopped the flotilla from setting sail.

Israel's maneuvering "clearly shows the military logic of Israeli politics, which only speaks the language of force," said a statement by Platform Palestine, a French activist group that helped organize the voyage.

In Israel, officials expressed satisfaction with the way the flotilla threat had been handled. One defense official called it "another P.R. disaster averted."

"These (flotillas) are meant to make Israel look bad, that is their biggest threat," said the official, who spoke to McClatchy on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

"We have circumvented this with minimum damage to ourselves. I would say that it has been very successful."

The official described a process of diplomacy through which Israel, allied with the United States, managed to stop the efforts of the pro-Palestinian organizations. He said that Israel pressured Greece to rein in its activists while the United States dealt with Turkey.

Relations between Israel and Turkey have soured over the last few years, straining the once strong partnership. The May 2010 flotilla incident — when nine Turkish nationals with IHH, a Turkish pro-Palestinian activist group, were killed — was widely seen as the last straw.

Turkey has called on Israel repeatedly to apologize for the killings. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan described the raid as "state terrorism" and briefly recalled the Turkish ambassador from Israel.

Israeli officials said that the U.S. was mediating an apology to Turkey. During her recent visit to Istanbul, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Turkish officials that President Barack Obama considered the restoration of ties between Israel and Turkey very important.

Perhaps as a result of the U.S. pressure, the Turkish government decided this month to stop the IHH flotilla ship from setting sail.

Other ships gathered in Greece and prepared to fly various flags during their voyage to Gaza. While the Greek government initially didn't interfere, activists said that officials gradually employed a system of delays and bureaucratic entanglements to thwart the ships.

Activists at the harbor city of Perama said that port officials would appear nearly daily for inspections and demand various paperwork that took hours or even days to procure. Some groups said that their ships had been sabotaged. One ship that circumvented authorities and set sail was boarded by Greek commandos and forced to return to port.

In a speech a few days later, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu personally thanked Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou.

"Years of carefully laid diplomatic work paid off," the Israeli defense official said.

He noted that even as Greek officials worked to stop the flotilla from setting sail from their ports, Greek and Israeli air force pilots were conducting a two-week drill at a Hellenic air force base.

"The joint drill was the most recent in a number of exercises cementing military cooperation between the two countries," he said.

The single French ship that set sail from Greece did so by announcing that its intended port was Alexandria, Egypt. Israeli navy officials began tracking it as soon as it set sail and had few problems stopping it off 50 miles off the coast of Gaza on Tuesday.

Writing in the Israeli daily Haaretz, military columnist Anshel Pfeffer called the interception "a knockout victory by the political echelon and defense establishment over the pro-Palestinian activists."

"There are lessons that have been learned over the past year. Each time we do it better, smarter and more effectively," said Capt. Baak Raz, an Israeli military spokesman.

(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2011

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