JERUSALEM – What exactly happened on the high seas off the Gaza-Israel coast remains in murky waters.
Already though, the implications of Israel’s assault on the peace flotilla of civilian vessels headed with humanitarian relief supplies for the besieged Palestinian territory are becoming starkly clear.
Despite the unexpected loss of lives the killings might just remain another incident in the long chain of bloody confrontations that stain the Israeli- Palestinian conflict.
Or it could prove to be a major turning point in the Palestinian bid to rid themselves not just of the siege of Gaza, but of the occupation as a whole en route to fulfilling their national aspirations for a full-fledged independent state.
Either way, the Israeli military operation in international waters is fast becoming the nightmare scenario Israel had dreaded since the flotilla sailed several days ago from Turkey: further erosion, perhaps even the collapse, of Israel’s already battered international standing and greater strain on the severely strained relations with Turkey.
Doubtlessly, there will be increased global attention to Gaza’s plight and the effect of the Israeli siege on the million and a half Palestinians who live there.
That prompts two crucial questions over two past seminal events:
Will the Marmara, the central ship in the Turkish-backed international flotilla where the violent clash occurred, become the Palestinian Exodus?
In 1947, amid the Jewish bid for independence in Mandatory Palestine, the Exodus, an old cargo vessel, was bringing in thousands of Jewish survivors from Nazi-ravaged Europe. When it was stopped by the British forces in Mandatory Palestine, the incident turned the international tide in favor of the creation of a Jewish state.
Will it also become Israel’s Sharpeville?
In 1961, South African apartheid police gunned down scores of unarmed African demonstrators who were protesting against the racist government. The massacre sparked the first serious international opprobrium against for the whites-only regime.
The showdown was predictable.
The flotilla had been expected to reach Gaza on Monday afternoon. After nightfall Sunday, however, three Israeli navy missile boats left their base in Haifa, steaming out to sea to confront the activists.
Shortly before dawn, the elite Israeli naval commando unit boarded the six vessels carrying the some 600 activists who were trying to break the long- standing Israeli-led blockade of the Strip.
The two sides offered conflicting accounts of what happened.
A correspondent on one of the boats reported back to Turkey that the Israelis forces had fired at the main vessel, the Marmara, before boarding it.
Israeli military officials said the soldiers were attacked with knives, clubs, and iron bars as they stormed aboard. They were threatened with “a lynching,” said one official. They thus had no alternative but to “act forcefully to protect themselves,” said the Israeli navy chief.
Among the activists were 1976 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mairead Corrigan Maguire of Northern Ireland and European legislators as well as a number of U.S. citizens, including a former ambassador and a former senior State Department official.
Turkey, once a close ally of Israel, but now a constant critic of Israel, especially after the Israeli attack on Gaza 18 months ago in which 1,400 Palestinians were killed, is calling the interception of the ships unacceptable. “Israel will have to endure the consequences of this behavior,” said a Turkish Foreign Ministry statement.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas described the incident as a “massacre,” according to the official Palestinian news agency, Wafa. Abbas, whose Fatah faction lost control of the Gaza Strip in fighting with Hamas in 2007, declared three days of mourning in the Palestinian territories.
The Arab League has been called into special session for Tuesday amid concern that it may call the Palestinian leader to halt the recently started “proximity” peace talks with Israel, which are being held under U.S. auspices.
Danny Ayalon, Israel’s deputy foreign minister, told a news conference that weapons had been found aboard the vessels. The flotilla was an “armada of hate and violence,” he maintained.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak voiced regret about the deaths but said that “full responsibility” lay with the organizers of the flotilla and those who had staged a violent attack on the troops when they boarded the Marmara. Barak insisted that the flotilla had no humanitarian purpose but was “pure provocation.”
Gaza, Barak said, was “under the control of a terrorist organization, Hamas.” That, he insisted, gave Israel the right to control whatever entered Gaza.
The Hamas leader in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, stated that “the true face of Israel has been exposed to the international community.”
Beyond the inevitable finger-pointing on both sides, beyond the grief and the anger, beyond the mutual sense of victimhood, the key question will be the context in which the Israeli military action will be projected by the Palestinians and their supporters.
If the purpose of the activists is indeed to further international demands for an end to Israel’s siege policy on Gaza, that may be the actual outcome of the bloody confrontation aboard the Marmara.
But should they seek to exploit the Israeli sea assault as a way of undermining Israel’s legitimacy, and shift the focus away from the illegitimacy of the continued occupation of the Palestinians, that could backfire.
A new wave of bloody conflict between Israelis and Palestinians may then, regrettably, be the only tangible result.
(Inter Press Service)