By William Tucker
In the pre-dawn hours of May 31, Israeli commandos of the Shayetet 13 special operations unit boarded several vessels that were attempting to bring aid supplies to the Gaza Strip. Israel warned the organizers of the aid flotilla that they would not be allowed through the blockade Israel currently has placed on Gaza. In hopes of heading off what was shaping up to be a crisis for the Israeli government, Israel offered to take the aid into Gaza so long as it was handled by the military. This offer was refused and the crisis Israel feared has now come to fruition.
The organization of the aid flotilla was not meant to solely be a goodwill gesture to the Palestinians in Gaza, but also had a profound political element. Although the flotilla was organized by a nongovernmental organization it is no coincidence that it was organized in Turkey. Turkey has been ruled by the AKP party since 2002 which has tried to reassert Turkish influence in the Middle East and establish Ankara as a leader, if not the preeminent leader, of the Islamic world. By tacitly signing off on the flotilla’s mission, Turkey is in a prime position to take up the mantel of the Palestinian cause. In taking such a public approach to supporting the Palestinians, Ankara would be sacrificing the close ties Turkey has had with Israel. Then again, that is the point. If Turkey is to position itself as a leader in the Muslim world it cannot be close to Israel and challenging the blockade, successful or not, would certainly help Ankara in pursuit of this leadership role.
It is likely that Israel ordered the raid on the flotilla even before the vessels departed from Cyprus one day prior. Israel also likely knew of the Turkish intent in organizing the flotilla in the first place and the no win situation that would ensue. Had Israel let the flotilla through the blockade without inspecting for weapons the possibility that Hamas could be resupplied to launch attacks on Israel would increase. There is also the probability that the pro-Palestinian groups would use the event to frame international opinion against Israel. From Israel’s perspective the boarding of the aid vessels was just as bad, which can be seen from the continuing fallout.
Although international condemnation of Israel’s actions was quick to follow the raid, Israel is not without options. Israel is being squeezed from multiple directions diplomatically and must tread carefully. One such option is to redirect the attention to the group that organized the aid flotilla. The flotilla was put together by the Islan Haklary Ve Hurriyetleri Vakfi, or IHH, which falls under the umbrella organization Union of Good. Strangely enough, the U.S. Treasury department actually states that the Union of Good was founded by members of Hamas – the very organization that would have benefited from the supplies being delivered by the IHH. If Israel is successful in deflecting attention from the raid and toward the organizers, and by extension the Turkish government, they may be able to manage the crisis, but will ultimately still suffer some consequences.
The U.S. position in this crisis will be interesting to watch. Both the U.S. and Turkey have had diplomatic spats with Israel in the last year or so and Washington will ultimately be put at odds with one of its allies. The U.S. relies heavily on both nations for intelligence and military cooperation in the Middle East, and Washington is known for playing these nations off the Arab powers in the region. The position Washington takes in this crisis will have profound consequences for the future of U.S. foreign policy in the region. Currently, Iran and Turkey are rising powers in the Middle East and will eventually bump into one another while exerting their respective influence. This leaves the U.S. is a terrible situation as it prepares to leave Iraq without sufficient American influence in Baghdad. This means the fight for control of the Middle East is starting to take shape and the Israeli raid on the IHH flotilla may have just lit the fuse.