Byron Scott, Professor Emeritus, Missouri School of Journalism: It’s not exactly clear what happened Monday when the Israeli naval commandos boarded six vessels bound for a well-publicized humanitarian mission and neared their Gaza Strip destination. Contradictory videos flooding news outlets and the Internet leave much room for debate. Nine deaths and dozens of injuries resulted in the battle aboard the flotilla’s leading vessel, the Turkish vessel Mavi Marmara. An emergency session of the United Nations Security Council produced one of many international expressions of alarm, censure and calls for investigation. Was Israel’s intervention an act of piracy or was it within the bounds of international law? Is the blockade of Gaza — begun in 2007 — justified and effective or a continuing and growing diplomatic embarrassment for Israel and its allies, including the United States?
Here to expand our understanding of this volatile international incident are Howard LaFranchi, foreign affairs correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor, who has been part of its bureau in Washington since 2001; Dr. Guner Ozkan is a columnist for the Journal of Turkish Weekly and writes and conducts research for the International Strategic Research Organization in Ankara, Turkey; Barak Ravid is diplomatic correspondent for the Haaretz Newspaper in Tel Aviv; and finally, Walid Batrawi, a long-time Palestinian media expert and correspondent for international news agencies, comes to us from Ramallah.
Howard LaFranchi, how will these actions affect the diplomatic mission, particularly here in the United States?
Howard LaFranchi, foreign affairs correspondent, The Christian Science Monitor: In Washington, the Obama administration is looking not only to avoid this situation from ever happening again but also to get to some of their other goals in the region such as relaunching the peace process and putting further clamps on the Iranian nuclear program. The confrontations between the two countries were set up when the U.S. demanded a halt to all settlement activity and Vice President Biden was in Jerusalem when more West Bank housing construction was announced.
Scott: Guner Ozkan, Turkey was viewed as Israel’s closest ally in the Muslim world prior to this incident, but things had been deteriorating recently, had they not?
Guner Ozkan, columnist, The Journal of Turkish Weekly: Yes, it is deteriorating very quickly, and if you look at the political, economic and strategic relations between these two countries in the Middle East, we have seen a dramatic increase since the middle of 1990s. The prime minister’s role with the Israeli president was actually the breaking point. Insulting the Turkish ambassador in Tel Aviv by having him sit in a lower chair and saying that in the Hebrew language was quite insulting and taken very seriously by Turkey. The other very important development for Turkey was the so-called Armenian genocide issue that was passed in the Foreign Relations Committee in the U.S.
Scott: Barak Ravid, bring us the Israeli perspective. You had actually written that intervention was coming.
Barak Ravid, diplomatic correspondent, Haaretz Newspaper, Israel: This whole affair that happened in the night between Sunday and Monday was a fiasco. This is obvious to everybody in Israel. A public opinion poll taken just yesterday showed that more than 50 percent of Israelis demand a national board of inquiry to take a look at all the decision-making of this operation. It’s obvious this operation didn’t go as planned. Decisions were taken very lightly, and most of the discussion wasn’t about how to do this operation with minimal casualties or the best way possible but about the PR around it — how to make it look like Israel is the right side here and not the wrong side. And now many of the questions are put toward the political echelon and not to the Army, because it’s obvious that what went wrong here was the decision-making and not the actual operation that the soldiers implemented.
Scott: Walid Batrawi, I gather you would probably agree with what Barak has just said?
Walid Batrawi, media expert, Ramallah, Palestinian territories: Definitely yes. The formation of an independent investigation body would answer many of the questions my Israeli colleague has put forth. Also, the release of footage taken during the operation should answer many questions. We should not only rely on the Israeli Army footage that was taken from the helicopters or from their own cameras. Today, the Foreign Press Association in Israel called on the Israeli authorities to release the video material and equipment that was confiscated from journalists who were aboard the flotilla, and they considered this to be a violation of the ethics of journalism. I think many of these questions will still be unanswered unless there is an independent investigation body that will show exactly what happened that night.
Scott: We’re looking actually at some of those videos now on our streaming broadcast. I was amazed reviewing them and some others that are on Facebook — how contradictory they seem to be. Would any of our participants care to dive in on that one?
Ravid: One of the things obvious in the footage was that this operation wasn’t planned right. At the end of the day, what happened on the Mavi Marmara was a demonstration. In every Western democratic country, the way to disperse a demonstration is by using police force, tear gas and nonlethal weapons; the goal was to disperse a demonstration, but the means used were highly trained commandos trained for other purposes. What happened was that around 50 demonstrators had waited for the soldiers, just fought them with their hands, clubs and knives; and the soldiers didn’t have any nonlethal weapons to calm down the crowd.
Scott: Guner Ozkan, what is the situation in Turkey and with the public reaction?
Ozkan: Public reaction is very furious from the moment this happened. Many people believe that it should have been handled more peacefully. It’s like a wartime action before the army attacks the opposing side first light of the day while having knowledge that all the people were unarmed, were civilian and were just taking aid to the people.
Scott: Walid Batrawi, speaking of Ramallah, tell us what’s happening there in the aftermath of Monday’s events.
Batrawi: There’s outrage here, although things have calmed down a little, especially after messages from the international community and U.N. secretary general about the need to lift the siege imposed by Israel on the Gaza Strip. Palestinians have also received the news of what happened with deep sorrow. For example, if you go around Ramallah, I can only see Turkish flags hanging around, which means that many Palestinians have great sympathy for those who died. There is huge concern about what Israel will do in other military operations if this operation goes unpunished. I think many Palestinians do not have faith in the international community as a result of the previous experiences with Israel. And one latest example is the war in Gaza. So they still have doubts about what will happen, but they’re hoping that this tragedy will push the peace process forward and lift the siege from the Gaza Strip.
Scott: One of the videos that we’ve seen in the last few moments is of yet another, smaller flotilla of humanitarian aid vessels about to leave Turkey, and one of them is a cargo ship named Rachel Corrie. That’s the name of the 23-year-old college student who died after being run over by a bulldozer in a demonstration in the Gaza Strip in March 2003. Aboard that vessel, in addition to its cargo, are some Irish parliamentarians and at least one Nobel Prize winner. What’s going to happen when the smaller flotilla approaches the Israeli coast? Howard LaFranchi, what would the United States like to see happen here?
LaFranchi: The U.S. is saying, “OK, Israel has a right to security and to protect itself.” But this situation with the blockade of Gaza will continue to be a PR nightmare for Israel, and it will continue to block diplomatic process in a whole array of areas where the United States would like to see progress. And so it’s another disaster waiting to happen. What the administration is pressing for is some change in the blockade so that humanitarian aid can get in. Some way has to be found quickly to ensure Israel’s security but also ensure that humanitarian supplies, medical supplies and construction supplies can get in. One idea is to actually press Israel to open some of the land crossings to a greater flow of people and items of everyday life, which could be better controlled than sea entrances.
Scott: “Unsustainable” is the word that our secretary of state and many others have used in regard to the blockade. Barak Ravid and Walid Batrawi, what is going to happen with the approach of this new flotilla? Walid, start us out with the Palestinian perspective. What do you predict?
Batrawi: Palestinians in Gaza have always looked at this blockade as collective punishment that is unfair and unjust to punish 1.5 million Palestinians because of the actions of Hamas. The blockade of Gaza has brought disasters to the Gaza Strip. I can understand the Israeli concerns of smuggling weapons, but I cannot understand why building materials and glass cannot be brought into Gaza. A news report from a media organization mentioned that only salmon steak is allowed into Gaza. Palestinians look at these ships as a solidarity for many who are living there. We have seen scenes of Gazans throwing flowers into the sea, waiting to see all these supporters coming. They believe these are the voices that are supporting the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.
Scott: Barak, tell us what will happen with the approach of this new group of ships.
Ravid: Israel should form a board of inquiry, and the same thing should be done in Turkey. I think the Turkish government also has some kind of a responsibility for what happened because of the negotiations that took place between the Turkish government and Israel before the operation. The second point I want to make is that the case of Rachel Corrie is not going to be the same as that with the Mavi Marmara, as there are diplomatic negotiations among the Israeli government and the Irish government and the NGO that is leading this second flotilla. And there are deliberations under way that will probably end with the ship coming to port and all the materials being delivered to Gaza by Israel. And the third point is that for Israel, it’s obvious that the policy of the siege didn’t work. For four years, we’ve been trying to put pressure on Hamas. The siege doesn’t work. The popularity of Hamas is not declining or at least not as Israel expected it to decline.
Scott: While I have no doubt that the Mavi Marmara affair will continue to be part of political and diplomatic debates, let me close with a bit of historic irony. This is not the first time a ship intercepted on the high seas has caught the world’s attention and brought fresh focus to a Middle East dilemma. On July 18, 1947, British soldiers boarded a vessel purchased by the Haganah, renamed the S.S. Exodus 1947, crowded with more than 4,000 Holocaust survivors off the coast of Palestine and in international waters. Two immigrants and one crewman died in the pitched battle that followed. Historians credit the subsequent media reports with helping focus the world’s attention on Jewish statehood and the eventual birth of Israel.
Producers of Global Journalist are MU journalism graduate students Liz Lance, Youn-Joo Park, Angela Potrykus, Tim Wall and Rebecca Wolfson. The transcriber this week was Dannie Derryberry.