WHEN I saw the shaky images of Israeli naval commandoes rappelling on to the decks of the Mavi Marmara in international Mediterranean waters, my first thought was: I could have been there.
A combination of financial restraints (the humanitarian relief flotilla was no junket) and a conflicting commitment had seen me crying off from joining one of the vessels sailing towards Gaza from Turkey with a cargo of relief for Gaza.
Nevertheless, I’d keenly monitored the progress of the international flotilla accompanied by 750 relief workers, human rights activists, politicians and journalists hailing from 40 countries.
Carrying 10, 000 tonnes of supplies, I could only applaud the humanitarian notions of the organisers. But having covered the Palestinian-Israeli conflict for some time, I knew that there also had to be an element of bravery – if not bravado – about it all.
All my instincts told me that the Israelis weren’t going to welcome the flotilla with open arms. The steel-fisted military state that Israel has become in the 21st century would only be able to perceive the peaceful, unarmed Gazan aid convoy as a hostile force.
And on top of that, Israel’s generals could not afford to let foreign nationals simply waltz into a blockaded Gaza en-masse and be international heroes. Gaza, after all, in the propaganda text-book is the heartland of Hamas, the terrorist bogey in their midst allegedly supported by Iran.
I wasn’t quite sure how the Israelis would respond to the flotilla of vessels sailing into their waters, but on Sunday I started to get a bad feeling. When I heard that the fleet was approaching Gaza on Sunday night, and that it had steered into international waters to avoid confrontation with the Israeli navy, I knew the chase was on.
The aid organisers’ hope that Israeli response would be an easy filmable daylight media event proved to be a vain one. At 4, 30 am (the favourite Israeli attack time) events unfolded as helicopters throbbed overhead and gunboats circled with spotlights.
The tragedy of what occurred is defined by two things: stupidity and naivety. The stupidity is on the side of the Israelis (who tragically think that negotiation is a weakness), and the naivety is on the side of the humanitarian organisers (who can’t really be blamed for their frightened response).
My view is that the Israeli navy was initially ordered to “commandeer” the boats and take them to Israeli ports. Once docked, the boats would be searched – goods confiscated – and the passengers painstakingly interrogated with the hope of linking some of them to Hamas, or any convenient “terrorist” entity, to discredit the Gaza aid operation.
This, on the Israeli drawing-board, would be an embarrassment to the Turkish government as a Turkish NGO, the IHH (Insani Yardim Vakfi) Humanitarian Relief Foundation, was one of the driving forces behind the idea of the Freedom Flotilla to Gaza.
If this notion was the plan, it would have been as hare-brained as the dawn raid in international waters. The IHH is a UN accredited organisation operating in over 50 countries.
The blow-back for Israel today is that many people, including diplomats, statesmen and world leaders, are struggling for words to describe their disgust at what happened. Killing unarmed civilians on a merchant ship trying to help one million besieged Gazans isn’t good press, whichever way you look at it.
The naivety of those on board the Mavi Marmara was evident to me when they chose to resist the Israeli assault. Understandably scared and intimidated by a volley of gunfire from the darkness, they couldn’t have realised that the Israeli commandoes – pumped up with adrenaline and armed to the teeth – would have been more than jittery themselves.
Totally unequipped to deal with civilian scenarios, and the desperate self-defence of those on board, their only response would have been to fire on the unarmed passengers and crew – or to jump into the sea, which some allegedly did.
I’m certainly not justifying the typically disproportionate and murderous nature of the Israeli action, but as a journalists and aid workers there are ground rules in combat or conflict situations – ground rules that I feel were tragically ignored in the heat of the moment.
Firstly, you can’t take sides when you’re working. If you’re a journalist your duty – no matter what your personal feelings – is to observe and report on events, and if you’re an aid worker your duty is to help victims.
Basically, one has to stay in the middle as much as possible – even it means having to hunker down when the bullets fly.
Of course, easier said than done. Sometimes it’s not so clear, and difficult moral questions do arise: for example, what do you do if your direct intervention in a story you’re covering can save a human life?
Secondly, if you physically lift a finger in response to soldiers, police, border guards or security officials anywhere in the world you immediately become a player in that conflict. In other words, the neutral ground you are standing on becomes part of the battlefield.
And that is exactly what happened on board the Mavi Marmara early on Monday morning.
Hindsight is the cliché of 20-20 vision, and I feel the flotilla would have lost none of its moral high ground had it been allowed to surrender peacefully, which is the point. Without the unecessary deaths and injuries, the stark images of the Israeli illegal boarding would have still eloquently told the tale.
Nonetheless, not only does Israel find itself depicted yet again as the world’s number-one nasty nation, it finds itself steeped in the blood of non-combatant civilians who can’t be as easily written-off as Palestinian victims can.
If anything, I would define this story as being Israel’s “Sharpeville moment”. For when the South African police opened fire in a Gauteng township field in 1960, and killed 69 anti-apartheid protestors, little could they have realised the political import of their panicky deed.
Whilst for leaders in the US and Britain apartheid was always a better option than Cold War communism, it became increasingly difficult for them to publicly justify this view. The anti-apartheid movement would gather momentum. Boycott, disinvestment and sanctions would follow, bringing the country to its knees in 1990.
Comparisons are uncomfortably odious, but Israel could find itself in a similar position today. World leaders, who have traditionally seen Zionism as a better option to pan-Arabism and so-called Islamism, face a curiously comparable scenario to the South African one.
The upshot is that the ill-fated Israeli dawn raid in the Mediterranean will have the reverse effect of its intentions, which is ultimately to play victim at the hands of Hamas, Hizballah and Iran.
Calls for the breaking of the Gaza blockade, the cessation of West Bank settlement building, a halt to East Jerusalem house demolitions and the dirty words for Israel – boycott, disinvestment and sanctions – will now enter the frame louder than ever.