Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Matt 24 watch, 101: A Jihadi and media ambush off the coast of Israel

Only a few days after having to address the sad recent events in Jamaica [NB: updated Jun 1, 2010], we now have to look at the bloody battle on board a Turkish flagged merchantman seeking to break the Israeli-Egyptian anti-weapons smuggling blockade of the Gaza coast.


As the Middle East spins out of control towards a major confrontation between Israel and Iran over the ongoing attempts by the latter to acquire nuclear warheads for the ballistic missiles it has developed with the aid of North Korea [and others], Israel has found itself in several confrontations with Iranian proxies, often over rocket bombardments from Lebanon or Gaza. In recent years, despite the UNIFIL presence in Lebanon, Hezbollah has reportedly moved from the 13,000 rockets and missiles that posed an acknowledged "existential threat" to Israel in 2006, to a claimed 35,000. Early last year, after some 6,000 rockets in four years, Israel invaded Gaza and broke up the rocket infrastructure; to loud international outcry over a "disproportionate" response. Since then, it seems that "only" some 95 rocket and mortar bomb lobbing incidents have been reported.

In recent months as Iran -- which has repeatedly threatened to wipe Israel off the map -- has moved closer and closer to nuclear weapons, Israel and the Obama Administration have had a public falling out, and Iran has moved to cement ties with both Turkey and Brazil. In that situation, the announced sailing of a blockade breaking flotilla from a Turkish port takes on deep significance.

This is multiplied by the significance of the chants that the blockade runners were filmed making:

(The chants refer to Mohammed's troubling relations with three Jewish tribes at Yathrib [apparently originally a Jewish settlement], which was renamed Medina after the early Muslims took refuge there from Mecca. Over time the tribes were stripped of property, exiled, enslaved and in one case the men were massacred by Mohammed's order. Seven to nine hundred men were beheaded in one day and buried in a mass grave.)

{UPDATE, June 23:
David Parsons of ICEJ News therefore exposes the media ambush in the following video report (NB: IDF sources subsequently corrected the timeline to say that their soldiers began to use their pistols in self defence about two minutes after descending to the decks of the ship, in the face of a captured soldier with a gun to the head):

This report allows us to see how the world first heard of the sad events of May 31, from a media report that conspicuously failed to mention the attack on the IDF soldiers as soon as they descended to the deck of the ship, with metal pipes, clubs, knives and captured guns. The delay of many hours before the IDF videotapes were released then allowed this selective report to cement itself in the minds of the public and many policy makers as the material truth, rather than a highly tendentious and deceptive half-truth in violation of all canons of journalistic ethics.}

Against this backdrop, it is significant to observe the request of the Israelis that the flotilla divert to Ashdod where the cargo could be inspected under the observation of the peace activists, and transferred by road to Gaza, similar to normal supply movements. (NB: The banning of cement and pipes came in for particular notice. Apparently the Israelis have restricted and rationed such items to known projects to minimise diversion to bunker building and making of rockets.)

The next video is from the bridge of an intercepting Israeli vessel:

From the refusal it is clear that the real objective was to break an anti-weapons blockade [as, large missiles cannot easily be smuggled though tunnels from Egypt . . . and Israel's main nuclear centre, Dimona, is about 50 miles from Gaza, within reach of large rockets], not to get humanitarian supplies to Gaza, which could easily enough have been accomplished through the request to divert to Ashdod. "Negative, negative . . . "

While the issues of the legitimacy of a blockade and enforcing it at distance in International waters will be debated back and forth -- NB: in both the First and Second World Wars, Britain enforced a long distance blockade of Germany [UPDATE, Jun 2: Cf. a discussion of the relevant 1994 San Remo international treaty clause here(and as well the official legal opinion here)] -- it is clear that the Israelis were dealing with a blockade-running attempt. So, they sent over parties of naval commandos, armed with paintball guns and sidearms they were instructed not to use save in defence of their lives. Apparently they expected some demonstration, but did not expect to meet street fighters armed thusly in the key case, Mavi Marmara [the other five vessels apparently were taken under control with no major violent incidents]:

Pickaxe handles, high power slingshots and stones, hammers, metal pipes, sledgehammers, daggers, knives, ice picks and Molotov Cocktails are not exactly typical peace activist paraphernalia.

UPDATE, Jun 2: The ship's security video
shows just such weapons as were shown above being prepared and brandished by the rioters:

In that context it is unsurprising to see that rappelling commandos were ambushed, mobbed, clubbed and stabbed, then in at least one case tossed over the edge of the deck:

Reportedly, once a sidearm had been captured [apparently from the soldier tossed headlong to a deck 30 ft below as can be seen in the above Infra red video], IDF soldiers were then shot, and received permission to fire in self defence. The IDF reports say that they shot at legs, but of course this needs to be checked against the -- sad and regrettable -- fact that at least nine deaths occurred among the rioters, along with a significant number of wounded. (NB: Handguns are notoriously difficult to control under stress.)

UPDATE, Jun 3: An experienced military analyst discusses what happened when Israeli soldiers rappelled down to the deck of the ship, including identifying a soldier with a paintball gun and how the use of life jackets and face masks by the rioters rendered these non-lethal weapons largely ineffective:

This analysis has highly significant implications. For, if the rioters prepared themselves to render paintball gun shots ineffective, they plainly expected that the Israeli soldiers were going to be primarily armed with such guns -- probably on analysis of previous interceptions of blockade running ships. Further, it strongly suggests that the intent was not just to batter or swarm down and maim or kill the soldiers, but probably to seize several soldiers as hostages to force a hostage crisis; thus compelling the Israelis to allow the ships to go to Gaza without inspection or hindrance.

But instead, on seeing their lives were in danger, the soldiers were authorised to shoot; which resulted in the deaths of it seems nine rioters.

{UPDATE, June 11: A smuggled out video provides inadvertent corroboration of the earlier IDF videos and reports from soldiers [cf. Appendix below, June 4]. We see the IDF speedboats, but not the brandishing of clubs, chains etc, nor the use of flash grenades or firebombs and fire-hoses to try to fend them off. We see the hovering helicopter over the edge of the upper deck, and glimpses of descending soldiers. We follow someone into the aid station, and at about the 2 minute mark, hear a fusillade of pistol shots, then a burst of automatic fire and scattered shooting thereafter. Wounded come in, first in the legs, then in the head-throat region. We do not see the battered, disarmed and captured IDF soldiers who were brought to the same station, nor the knives and clubs that appear in the pictures Hurriet published on them. We do not see the IDF soldiers' paintball guns. This is consistent with an attempt to use a soldier with a gun at the head to get the unit to surrender, met with shots to kill the potential shooter, and then leading to a rush at the IDF perimeter, stopped by a fusillade of shots, and onward pursuit of rioters.}

Predictably, once such a violent and bloody outcome occurred [and on live TV and Internet broadcasts due to dozens of media crews being aboard], Israel has been subjected to International censure and there have been demonstrations against Israel around the world. If one looks to the blogosphere, some very ugly remarks are being made too.

{Update, June 11: one of the most serious accusations is that that by stopping the ship on the high seas, the Israelis commited an act of piracy and kidnapping, and it is also suggested that the Israelis are subjecting the Gazans to a humanitarian catastrophe.

On the first, ironically, the same Reuters that seems to have been caught out clipping off knives in activists' hands from the Hurriet photos of captured IDF soldiers, has responded aptly:


Yes it can, according to the law of blockade which was derived from customary international law and codified in the 1909 Declaration of London. It was updated in 1994 in a legally recognised document called the "San Remo Manual on International Law Applicable to Armed Conflicts at Sea". Under some of the key rules, a blockade must be declared and notified to all belligerents and neutral states, access to neutral ports cannot be blocked, and an area can only be blockaded which is under enemy control.

"On the basis that Hamas is the ruling entity of Gaza and Israel is in the midst of an armed struggle against that ruling entity, the blockade is legal," said Philip Roche, partner in the shipping disputes and risk management team with law firm Norton Rose . . . .

The Israeli navy said on Monday the Gaza bound flotilla was intercepted 120 km (75 miles) west of Israel. The Turkish captain of one of the vessels told an Istanbul news conference after returning home from Israeli detention they were 68 miles outside Israeli territorial waters.

Under the law of a blockade, intercepting a vessel could apply globally so long as a ship is bound for a "belligerent" territory, legal experts say . . . .

Israeli authorities said marines who boarded the Turkish vessel Mavi Marmara opened fire in self-defence after activists clubbed and stabbed them and snatched some of their weapons. Legal experts say proportional force does not mean that guns cannot be used by forces when being attacked with knives. "But there has got to be a relationship between the threat and response," [Commander James Kraska, professor of international law at the U.S. Naval War College] said . . . .

"Whether what Israel did is right or wrong, it is not an act of piracy. Piracy deals with private conduct particularly with a pecuniary or financial interest," Kraska said.
On the wider question, it is now evident that while there is undoubted hardship and poverty in Gaza, in significant part due to the dislocations of an ongoing war with Israel, and there is need to rebuild what was lost during the Cast Lead counter attack to 6,000 rockets fired from Gaza at civilian towns in Israel, over a million tons of humanitarian materials have been transshipped into Gaza through Israel or from Israel since January 2009, and there is no threatening or existing humanitarian catastrophe. One hopes that the proposal by Abbas to go back to the line of discussions on a settlement adjusted from the 1949 - 67 borders, will be fruitful.

As we read in today's Jerusalem Post article, "Nobody denies Jewish history here":
[Abbas] said he was looking for agreement from the Netanyahu government that the basis for borders would be the 1967 lines with agreed land swaps, an arrangement he said was in place during his direct talks with the previous prime minister, Ehud Olmert.

“Everyone around the world talks about the ’67 borders, but with some amendments, some swaps here and there,” he told a Brookings Institution forum the day after he met with US President Barack Obama and other top American officials . . . .

Abbas reaffirmed publicly positions more often heard from Palestinians in private, such as his willingness to have a long-term international presence in Palestinian areas in order “to make the Israeli people feel secure inside their homes.”

He pointed to NATO as one such organization he had discussed with American officials, declaring through a translator, “We have no objections to NATO.”

He rejected out of hand the concept of a one-state solution, but said the popularity of this idea was growing among Palestinians and added to the urgency of resolving the situation so that there would be “no more demands” and an “end of claims.” He also said that the matter of Palestinian refugees would be handled by an “agreed” solution . . . .

On another sensitive issue – the notion that Jerusalem would be a shared capital for both countries – Abbas indicated that he recognized Israeli claims to west Jerusalem as its capital, but not to east Jerusalem. At Wednesday night’s dinner, he stated, “We say that west Jerusalem is the capital of Israel” . . . .

When asked about whether under a final agreement the PA would recognize Israel as a Jewish state, Abbas told the crowd of 30 leaders of major Jewish organizations, former national security advisors and think tank experts that Israel would be free to describe itself however it wanted.

But he also said, “Nobody denies the Jewish history in the Middle East. A third of our holy Koran talks about the Jews in the Middle East, in this area. Nobody from our side at least denies that the Jews were in Palestine.”
While there are obvious points of contention, this is more or less where things stood in September 2000, when Arafat walked away from the peace table and triggered the current wave of conflict. It is also close to what was on the table in 1948 and 1967.

It is sad that so much blood and treasure have had to be needlessly expended to come back to the lines of a compromise that could have been had 60 years ago, simply by being willing to sit down with the Israelis, and again 40 years ago and yet again 10 years ago.

Unfortunately, matters may be spinning further out of Control as Iran is threatening to send in convoys backed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.}

Most menacingly, Turkey is reported to be threatening to exploit its NATO membership and send in a follow up convoy under Turkish naval escort, which could -- in principle at least -- trigger the mutual defence clause of the NATO treaty; against Israel. All, in a situation where Israel has just announced openly that its submarines (which can carry cruise missiles, including potentially nuclear armed ones) are on regular patrol off the coast of Iran.

And so, events are plainly spinning dangerously out of control.

Let us pray that wiser heads will prevail in the Middle East and globally, before things spin completely out of control, triggering a regional nuclear war.

For, that is what is plainly on the table now. END

PS: For those who need a refresher on the history of modern Israel and the linked question of the legitimacy of Jewish nationalism in their ancestral homeland, I suggest here.

UPDATE, Jun 2: Humanitarian supplies delivered to Gaza overland from Ashdod, Israel:

(In a late-breaking development, IDF's blog announced late on June 2, that twenty truckloads of aid from the flotilla were being blocked from entry into Gaza by the Hamas authorities.)


APPENDIX, Jun 4: The sergeant who shot six of nine attackers on the MV Mavi Marmara tells his story. Excerpting:
When St.-Sgt. S. fast-roped down from an air force Black Hawk helicopter onto the Mavi Marmara Turkish passenger ship on Monday morning, he did not expect to be landing in what he called “a battlefield” and facing off against a group of “murderous mercenaries.” [NB: Elsewhere in the linked article, it says the attackers showed signs of military training, were coordinated in 20-man squads, had ceramic flak vests, and had thousands of [US?] dollars each in their pockets.]

The 15th and last naval commando from Flotilla 13 (the Shayetet) to rappel down onto the ship from the helicopter, S. said on Thursday that he was immediately attacked by what the IDF has called “the mob of mercenaries” aboard the vessel, just like the soldiers who had boarded just before him.

Looking to his side, he saw three of his commanders lying wounded – one with a gunshot wound to the stomach and another with a gunshot wound to the knee. A third was lying unconscious; his skull was fractured by a devastating blow with a metal bar.

As the next in the chain of command, S., who has been in the Shayetet [the IDF unit involved] for three and a half years, immediately took charge.

He pushed the wounded soldiers up against the wall of the upper deck and created a perimeter of soldiers around them to begin treating their wounds, he said. He then arranged his men to form a second perimeter, and pulled out his 9 mm. Glock pistol [which has a 17-round magazine, standard] to stave off the charging attackers and to protect his wounded comrades.

The attackers had already seized two pistols from the commandos, and fired repeatedly at them. Facing more than a dozen of the mercenaries, and convinced their lives were in danger, he and his colleagues opened fire, he said. S. singlehandedly killed six men. His colleagues killed another three . . . .

“When I hit the deck, I was immediately attacked by people with bats, metal pipes and axes,” S. told the Post. “These were without a doubt terrorists. I could see the murderous rage in their eyes and that they were coming to kill us” . . .

[CORRECTION:] In contrast to earlier reports, the commandos said that they began using their weapons within a minute and a half after boarding the ship, due to the extreme violence they faced. One of the reasons S. pulled out his gun right after landing on the ship was because one of the mercenaries was pointing a pistol, snatched from one of the commandos, at another commando’s head.
This is the first eyewitness report on the circumstances surrounding the nine deaths, and it fits with the already established picture we can see from the above videos. So, while we of course will want other accounts, including from the other side, it gives some important -- and sadly sobering -- context for our reflections.

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