Ahmet Dogan

You absolutely must read Roger Cohen's op-ed taking the US media to task for almost completely ignoring that Israel murdered an American citizen during the flotilla raid.

I'll just quote his conclusion to the question raised by Dogan's father: whether, had his son been Christian living in America, he would have faced the same silence.

It’s different, however, when an American Muslim male gets stuck in a hail of Israeli gunfire.


Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

Khouri on the flotilla

I am quoting from most of this Rami Khouri column, because it is so on the money:

The experience of the Free Gaza Movement over the past few years, which sent half a dozen boat expeditions to deliver humanitarian aid to Gazans, suggests to many that in-your-face confrontation is the most effective way to challenge Israel and force it to change its policies. Israel’s reduced siege of Gaza is the fourth example of its changing a policy under pressure. The three other cases were the withdrawals from south Lebanon and Gaza’s heartland in the face of Hizbullah- and Hamas-led resistance, and the partial suspension of some settlements for 10 months last year in response to American government pressure.

So the question now is: How will people and states in the Arab world and nearby lands, like Iran and Turkey, react to the latest lesson in challenging Israel with forceful action, over making only meek pleas? 

Israel is already initiating two new aggressive acts that will quickly test the mettle of both its friends and foes. It will destroy several dozen Palestinian Arab homes in occupied East Jerusalem to build an Israeli tourism facility, and it will initiate work on the ground to build another 600 homes for settler-colonial Zionists in the Jerusalem area.

The fascinating issue today is not whether Israel is making any major changes in its policies: it is not. Its changes are only cosmetic, to ward off foreign pressures. The really important new development is the growing Arab and international realization that the criminal and inhuman excesses of Zionism – colonialism, discrimination, collective punishment, racism, siege and starvation, murder on the high seas, mass incarcerations, and more – can best be confronted using the same tactics that finally brought down the two major examples of racism and inequity in modern times: the civil rights movement that broke the back of official racism in the United States, and the anti-Apartheid movement that forced the white minority government in South Africa to accept a fully democratic system.

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The heart-wrenching psychological trauma of Israeli soldiers — how could the activists trying to break the Gaza blockade be so cruel?

The difficult images of Israeli commandos tied up and bloody on the deck of the Marmara that were published by Turkish newspapers have had significant effects on soldiers who have been away from the battlefield for more than a year.

Ynet learned that at least four Navy combat soldiers have recently contacted the Defense Ministry to report that the media images of the injured soldiers have instigated a worsening in their mental and psychiatric conditions.

One of the soldiers, who was released from the military just last summer after serving in one of the Navy's secret units, recently contacted the Defense Ministry rehabilitation department with a request that the depositions on his condition be updated after the images of the clashes on the Marmara flooded him once again with the difficult images he was confronted with during his service.

This same young man enlisted to the IDF with no medical or psychological conditions. However, due to the nature of his service, he was persistently exposed to threat. In the deposition on his condition, he reported that he did not receive any training on how to deal with such situations and their repercussions, one of which is that he has a hard time falling asleep at night.

His condition then worsened, and he suffered from nightmares, prompting his mental health officer to hospitalize him in a psychiatric ward.

I had wondered what psychological trauma was endured by the families of the nine people who died on that boat. But thank you Yediot Ahronot for pointing me to the real tragedy.

Fleeting flotilla thoughts and links for June 6-10 2010

I was away in Beirut for the last few days and kept pretty busy by a conference and enjoying all the delicious food (I think I could win a manaqeesh eating competition), so I have not kept up with last week's blogging on the flotilla. As the issue has started to dissipate, one can only note with horror and consternation the direction debate has taken in the US, where the whole approach to Israel/Palestine is so lop-sided that you'd think Helen Thomas' insensitive comments are a greater offense then an illegal assault that resulted in the death of nine civilians, some of whom may have been killed execution-style.

So here are a few notes on the remains of the flotilla story, especially Egyptian angles:

Interesting letter from the Egyptian Consult to the NYT:

Egypt has not enforced a blockade on Gaza since 2007. Instead, Egypt has operated its border crossing with Gaza in a transparent manner to avoid a chaotic situation that could have resulted after the hasty, unilateral withdrawal of the Israeli forces. The Israeli border authorities did not even consult with their Egyptian counterparts on the future operation of the Rafah crossing.

After the European Union suspension of its participation in staffing the Rafah crossing, and being aware of the possible ensuing blame game, Egypt restricted the movement of goods across Rafah to humanitarian needs. During the Gaza war, more than 80 percent of the humanitarian aid to Gaza entered through the Rafah crossing, which was initially intended for the crossing of people and not goods.

Hussein Mubarak
Consul General of Egypt
New York, June 7, 2010

A lot of this is a lie, of course. It is true that the Israelis (specifically, Ariel Sharon) distrusted the Egyptians so much that when they withdrew from the Rafah border in 2005 they didn't bother to let them know exactly when they were doing. The result was chaos as the border was under-manned. This is an Egyptian-Israeli matter, of course. 

I love the reference to a "blame game", and the rest is simply not true: Egypt has allowed occasional humanitarian aid in, but generally has routed it through Israel and is doing so again right now. This deserves more coverage. By the way, does anybody know if Mr. Mubarak is one of those Mubaraks?

Hamas on reconciliation talks in their latest visit to Cairo:

PLC Vice-Chariman Ahmad Bahr said that Hamas was not against a reconciliation agreement. He added, however, that, "We want a reconciliation agreement that gives the Palestinians their dignity back, which rules out the Quartet conditions and those stipulated by the US."

They also appease the Egyptians by stressing "there is no alternative to Egyptian mediation". Reconciliation should really be everyone's top priority, without preconditions. It's better to have a suspended peace process and Palestinian reconciliation that could lead to a credible interlocutor later on than the current situation, which is a simulation of a peace process intended to prevent reconciliation. Just don't tell that to the Egyptians.

✩ As I predicted in my recent FP piece on Egypt's approach to the Gaza blockade, the Egyptians are endorsing lifting the blockade but shifting all the attention back to Israel, not their own role. We see this in some of the recent news stories:



Also take a look at Biden's statement which focuses on keeping Israel-Palestinian talks alive, calls the current situation in Gaza unsustainable (but with no details) and does make a mention of Egyptian domestic issues.

Mouin Rabbani:

The likelihood of current diplomatic initiatives resulting in a meaningful two-state settlement is for all intents and purposes non-existent, argues Al-Shabaka Policy Advisor Mouin Rabbani, due to Israel’s determination to permanently control East Jerusalem and large swaths of the West Bank, and the lack of political will in the U.S. and Europe to reverse Israel’s expansionist momentum. He foresees an unwelcome future of further ghettoization and fragmentation of Palestinians in the occupied territories and within Israel, greater marginalization and atomization of the Diaspora, and an increasingly regionalized and existential conflict in which the initiative will lie with non-state actors operating beyond the confines of Israel/Palestine. Thus, rather than relying on continued diplomacy and alternative peace scenarios in the forlorn hope that the dominant American-Israeli framework will be modified, advocates of Palestinian self-determination should focus their efforts on arresting and where possible reversing realities on the ground, and undertake global campaigns to challenge Israeli impunity and promote the concept of Israeli accountability for its actions toward the Palestinian people. This, Rabbani concludes, presents the only realistic option for preserving Palestinian rights and, perhaps in the longer run, establishing meaningful diplomatic options.

 Read the whole thing.

Paul Woodward has a nice take on the Helen Thomas affair. It's sad to see her end her career in this way, especially considering the hypocrisy over her admittedly insensitive statement. Plenty of people in America have advocated moving the Palestinians out of Palestine and never get rebuked, even a dovish/progressive blogger/journalist like Matt Yglesias (not a position he holds now, at least, but more here). The whole episode shows how deeply ingrained the Zionist narrative is: you can't contest that it wasn't Jewish land to start with, that the Jewish historical claim to the land is pretty weak, or that most of the Israelis are either born elsewhere or descendants of people who were born elsewhere only a few generations ago. I call this acknowledging the "original sin" of Israel: that it was a settler project no different than the French one in Algeria. This doesn't mean — for me anyway — that Israelis need to pack up and "go home", but it means that either you have to give the same rights to both peoples who live there now or you have reach a solution whereby Israel's borders are fixed, the state stop expanding, and the settlements are dismantled. Along with Mouin Rabbani's argument above, it shows that either you need to roll back much of the settlement expansion of the past two decades and impose a two-state solution, or that solution dies and you're talking about either major conflict and ethnic cleansing or, eventually, a one-state solution. The first option, as difficult as it seems, still seems the best one to me.

More blogging to come tomorrow, I hope. For now, here are recent links:

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More Israeli propaganda failures

Max Blumenthal shows that the IDF is quietly redacting its own press releases to remove allegations of links between the IHH members of the flotilla and al-Qaeda:

Not content to believe that night vision goggles signal membership in Al Qaeda, Israel-based freelance reporter Lia Tarachansky and I called the IDF press office to ask for more conclusive evidence. Tarachansky reached the IDF’s Israel desk, interviewing a spokesperson in Hebrew; I spoke with the North America desk, using English. We both received the same reply from Army spokespeople: “We don’t have any evidence. The press release was based on information from the [Israeli] National Security Council.” (The Israeli National Security Council is Netanyahu’s kitchen cabinet of advisors).

Today, the Israeli Army’s press office changed the headline of its press release (see below), basically retracting its claim about the flotilla’s Al Qaeda links.

We debunked the basis of previous al-Qaeda links here.

Where is Obama?

GC at the The Majlis points out Obama's thundering silence:

As a journalist covering this story, it's been striking to see Washington's irrelevance over the last 72 hours. We've heard almost nothing from Obama or other US officials -- one 20-second sound bite from Hillary Clinton, that's it -- compared with (literally) hours of material from Turkish, Israeli, Arab and European leaders. The White House has gone out of its way to avoid taking a high-profile stance on the flotilla attack.

But here's the thing: Nobody in the Muslim world seems surprised! After the US ran interference for Israel at the United Nations, there wasn't much anger in the Arabic press. Instead there was mostly a sense of cynicism, like nobody expected America to behave differently.

We've seen a few anti-American protests over the last few days -- there was a small demonstration outside the US consulate in Adana, for example -- but overall there's been very little vitriol directed at the United States.

It's not for lack of interest in the flotilla attack, which has been covered almost non-stop on Arabic news networks for three days. But you get the sense nobody had higher expectations for the White House.

So when Gibbs says Obama's weak response won't affect his outreach to the Muslim world, maybe he's right. Obama's outreach has been stalling for months, particularly in the Arab world. He increasingly looks like just another American president: The promises of his Cairo speech are fading, he refuses to take strong public stands against Israel, and he's carrying on many of the Bush administration's most inflammatory policies (stepping up drone strikes, failing to close Guantanamo Bay, etc.).

The flotilla attack was a golden opportunity for Obama to reverse that trend, to demonstrate that he's serious about shifting US policy in the region. He passed on that opportunity -- and, in doing so, merely confirmed what many people in the region already suspected about his presidency.

While the US is now backing some relief for the Gaza blockade, no real change of approach is being seriously considered, apparently. They want to relieve the blockade, not really end it and restore Palestinian economic integrity.

Joe Biden says the problem is Hamas, Laura Rozen points out:

The Vice President also said Hamas shares blame for Palestinian suffering and said Hamas should join a Palestinian reconciliation government with its political rival, Fatah.

"So the problem is this would end tomorrow if Hamas agreed to form a government with the Palestinian Authority on the conditions the international community has set up," Biden said.

Except the "international conditions" are ridiculous and designed to prevent a national unity government while going ahead with a West Bank First policy. Rozen cites Biden's interview with Charlie Rose:

Joe Biden: Yes, we know that, but they could have easily brought it in here and we'd get it through. And so now the question is what do we do? Well, we had made it clear, the President of the United States has spoken three times, yesterday with Bibi, or the day before yesterday, he's spoken once yesterday with a guy that I have spent a fair amount of time with, with Prime Minister Erdogan in Turkey; the Turks, we passed a resolution in the U.N. saying we need a transparent and open investigation of what happened. It looks like things are -- 

Charlie Rose: International investigation -- 

Joe Biden: Well, an investigation run by the Israelis, but we're open to international participation, just like the investigation run on the sunken sub in — off the coast of Korea. That was run by South Korea, but the international community joined in that investigation. And so that is very possible here as well. I might add by the way for all those who say the Israelis, you know, you know, you can't trust them, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled today that every one of the people on those ships had to be released immediately, immediately.

So in the Korean case, the victim gets to do the investigation, whereas in the flotilla case, it's the aggressor? Of course, no surprise to see this: AIPAC embraces Biden statement.

The Obama administration has no moral ground to stand on in this case, so it's either spinning by keeping focus on the investigation rather than ending the blockade or keeping silent. Shameful. The US needs a clean break in its relationship with the Israeli regime, a radical departure. Will we ever get it?

Because the other alternative will become, over time, at the region's stronger states solving the problem by excluding the United States, rather than calling for it to play a greater role. Right now, the net balance points towards Washington being a liability for regional peace — in Iraq, in its attitude towards Iran, and of course in its defense of Israel no matter what.

The Israelis can't even get propaganda right anymore

My friend Ibn Kafka has a wonderful post catching Israel in a propaganda f**k-up. The Israeli Ministry Foreign Affairs posted on its Flickr account pictures of the terrifying weapons they found on the IHH ship. You know, things like bulletproof vests for emergency services, pepper spray, kitchen knives, bits of wood and other weapons of mass destruction. Except that they did not realize that Flickr displays EXIF data, which is the information that cameras record when they take pictures: aperture, shutter speed, flash status... and the time the picture was taken.

Which, as Flickr commenters quickly pointed out, was sometime in 2006. 

So the Israeli MFA quickly changed the EXIF date, but not before I was able to take snapshots of before and after:

I don't know what's most ridiculous: calling these objects weapons or messing up your propaganda.

Flotilla fallout: strategize and disentangle

I want to get this quick thought down amidst tons of work and much distraction from Twitter and the flotilla fallout.

There are three issues that have been raised at the heart of international debate as a result of the flotilla murders:

  1. The need for an investigation into the incident;
  2. The need to lift the Gaza blockade;
  3. The longer-term need for a breakthrough in the deadlock in the Middle East peace process caused in part by Israel's intransigeant and aggressive behavior, from settlement expansion to landgrabs to assistance to attacks by settlers to its lack of desire for a permanent resolution that is in anyway reasonable (or indeed, its lack of interest in a viable two-state solution)

These must be disentangled from one another and prioritized. The international response so far, at the UN, has put the focus on the investigation. It should instead be moved to lifting the Gaza blockade. Several governments have explicitly come out in favor of this, as well as many opinion leaders around the world.

The investigation process is underway, and there will inevitably be battles over what direction it takes. There is a principle in parts of international law that countries get to conduct investigations on their own actions themselves, and that things go to an international investigation only after the country in question is shown to be incapable of conducting a fair investigation. This is certainly the case with Israel — the precedent of the military investigation into the Gaza war, which was inadequate and led to the Goldstone report suggests that. There may also be a legal argument that Turkey should be conducting the investigation, although that's up to Turkey. I say let that process take place and be debated, but do not allow it to take center stage.

Gaza is the crux of the matter. An international effort towards lifting the blockade must be inventive and propose a solution to a complicated problem quickly. They should be focused on lifting the restrictions Israel imposes on goods coming into Gaza and ensure that reconstruction materials are allowed in. They must also tackle the security demands that Israel will make to prevent weapons going into Gaza. International institutions like the UN will almost certainly have to play a role, and perhaps also the European Union as monitors (as has been suggested before.) This is costly both politically and financially, support needs to be rallied around the idea. But an immediate aim must be allowing aid and reconstruction material, and secondly relinking the Gazan economy to that of the West Bank, i.e. restoring Palestine's economic integrity. 

This brings us to reviving an admittedly discredited peace process.

Update: to clarify (see Helena Cobban's comment below) I think focus peace process and what follows from here should take place after the blockade on Gaza is lifted.

Fully normalizing Gaza's status has to mean abandoning the "West Bank First" strategy implemented by the Bush administration in 2006, endorsed by the Quartet and continued by the Obama administration. It has to mean working towards Palestinian reconciliation leading to new elections and a legitimate Palestinian representation (neither the PA nor the Hamas government are currently legitimate, since their electoral terms have expired), and turning the proximity talks into preliminary talks while that can happen. It means renewed efforts at stopping potential spoiler states (Iran, Syria, Egypt and the United States) and spoiler factions (parts of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Dahlan Gang, Shas, Israel Beiteinu and others). And it may mean abandoning some of the legal infrastructure of the Oslo process and the Quartet process and bringing a fresh approach. I'm not optimistic, but as I see it this might be necessary. There is a great risk that various parties involved in this conflict will choose to grandstand and temporize — the Arab states with their threats of reneging the Arab Initiative, the US by continuing a policy based entirely on shielding Israel from hard decisions and sensible behavior. Now is the time to push, not retreat.

Out of chaos and tragedy, a breakthrough is possible — but only with intensive and continuous effort.

Update: Along the same lines do read Helena Cobban, who has much deeper knowledge of the intricacies of the Middle East peace process than I do: How to end the siege of Gaza and How to end the siege of Gaza, addendum.

The flotilla murders: not piracy, but war

Craig Murray, the courageous former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan who denounced Western silence over that brutal regime's practices, who brings his diplomatic and legal expertise to shed light on the legal issues surrounding the attack on the flotilla:

A word on the legal position, which is very plain. To attack a foreign flagged vessel in international waters is illegal. It is not piracy, as the Israeli vessels carried a military commission. It is rather an act of illegal warfare.

Because the incident took place on the high seas does not mean however that international law is the only applicable law. The Law of the Sea is quite plain that, when an incident takes place
on a ship on the high seas (outside anybody's territorial waters) the applicable law is that of the flag state of the ship on which the incident occurred. In legal terms, the Turkish ship was Turkish territory.

There are therefore two clear legal possibilities.

Possibility one is that the Israeli commandos were acting on behalf of the government of Israel in killing the activists on the ships. In that case Israel is in a position of war with Turkey, and the act falls under international jurisdiction as a war crime.

Possibility two is that, if the killings were not authorised Israeli military action, they were acts of murder under Turkish jurisdiction. If Israel does not consider itself in a position of war with Turkey, then it must hand over the commandos involved for trial in Turkey under Turkish law.

In brief, if Israel and Turkey are not at war, then it is Turkish law which is applicable to what happened on the ship. It is for Turkey, not Israel, to carry out any inquiry or investigation into events and to initiate any prosecutions. Israel is obliged to hand over indicted personnel for prosecution.

More legal arguments here. I hope the next ships are escorted by the Turkish Navy!

It's the Gaza siege, stupid

Here are a few responses that buttress my earlier post about what's important in the flotilla crisis. They emphasize the need to end the Quartet-backed blockade of Gaza. For the last 24 hours, Israel has putting forward the argument that the blockade stops rockets from reaching Gaza. This is a ridiculous and patently untrue argument. As countless NGOs and the UN have shown, Israel is engaging in a policy of deliberately withholding construction materials and basic necessities in what one senior official under the previous Israeli government described as a policy of "putting the Palestinians on a diet" back in 2006:

Israel's policy was summed up by Dov Weisglass, an adviser to Ehud Olmert, the Israeli Prime Minister, earlier this year. 'The idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger,' he said. The hunger pangs are supposed to encourage the Palestinians to force Hamas to change its attitude towards Israel or force Hamas out of government.

This is a policy of collective punishment, it is what the flotilla was fighting against, and what must end.

✩ International Crisis Group - link to Norman Finkelstein's site, for some reason it's not their main site. ICG (whom I worked for 2007-2009) has had a good line on Gaza, and this is emphasized here: 

Brussels/Washington/Jerusalem, 31 May 2010: The International Crisis Group condemns Israel’s assault on a flotilla of humanitarian aid bound for Gaza, which resulted in a tragic loss of life.

At the same time, the incident is an indictment of a much broader policy toward Gaza for which Israel does not bear sole responsibility.

For years, many in the international community have been complicit in a policy that aimed at isolating Gaza in the hope of weakening Hamas. This policy is morally appalling and politically self-defeating. It has harmed the people of Gaza without loosening Hamas’s control. Yet it has persisted regardless of evident failure.

“The flotilla assault is but a symptom of an approach that has been implicitly endorsed by many”, says Robert Malley, Director of Crisis Group’s Middle East Program. “It is yet another stark illustration of the belated need for a comprehensive change in policy toward Gaza.”

✩ The Guardian's editorial ended along the same lines:

The blockade should end, but that will only be the start of the U-turn which is now required. Closely allied to Gaza's physical isolation is its political one. The international consensus is also crumbling on isolating Hamas by insisting it recognise Israel before it is allowed to join a national unity government with Fatah. Russia broke the taboo first two week ago when its president, Dmitry Medvedev, met Khaled Meshal, the Hamas leader in Damascus, but other countries in Europe are now planning to follow suit. Brick by brick, this policy is coming apart, and in a strange way Israel is helping.

✩ William Hague, UK Foreign Secretary - I'm surprised with this one, it's excellent! Better than anything Labour would have said.

This news underlines the need to lift the restrictions on access to Gaza, in line with UNSCR 1860. The closure is unacceptable and counter-productive. There can be no better response from the international community to this tragedy than to achieve urgently a durable resolution to the Gaza crisis.

I call on the Government of Israel to open the crossings to allow unfettered access for aid to Gaza, and address the serious concerns about the deterioration in the humanitarian and economic situation and about the effect on a generation of young Palestinians ."

✩ On the Arab front, Syria has called for an emergency meeting of the Arab League (there will be a press conference tonight). Kuwait's parliament has voted to rescind its endorsement of the Arab Initiative. Qatar was the first Arab state to condemn the flotilla murders, perhaps they came so soon after an Israeli cabinet minister was in Doha. And Egypt is reopening the Rafah border:

(Reuters) - Egypt opened its border with the Gaza Strip on Tuesday, letting Palestinians cross until further notice amid a storm of international criticism of Israel's blockade of the enclave, officials in Egypt and Gaza said.

It's not clear exactly what will happen, but at a minimum humanitarian aid should be allowed in directly through Rafah without going through the Kerem Shalom or Karni crossings controlled by Israel.

✩ Last but certainly not least, my friend Ethan Heitner — a cartoonist dedicated activist for justice in Israel/Palestine — has produced a comic strip leaflet calling for attendance at US protests:

Do check out his new comic blog, Freedom Funnies.

Keeping focus and countering the spin

Amidst the rage about yesterday's flotilla murders, it's important to keep a sense of proportion and focus about what's really important. And, of course, to be prepared to poke holes in the way the pro-Israel-no-matter-what community is going to spin this.


✩ Yesterday's murders were an unwarranted attack on civilians by elite units of one of the most fearsome and best-equipped army in the world. It's not a "blunder" or poorly planned attack — the decision to raid the boat is itself illegal, immoral and is what needs condemning. 

✩ The fact that the boat was attacked in international waters adds to the legal case against Israel, but should not become the whole story as much as the "pirates of the Eastern Mediterranean" narrative is tempting. If the boat had been attacked in Israeli or Palestinian or Egyptian territorial waters, the murders would be just as offensive and the decision to raid just as reprehensible.

✩ The best way to honor the memory of the victims of the raid is, as well as defending them and ensuring their murders are punished, keep an eye on the big picture: Gaza. The flotilla was trying to break the blockade — a blockade that is illegal by any international standard, as UN Envoy Archibishop Desmond Tutu and other statesmen have stated:

Tutu said the blockade was "a siege" and a "gross violation to Human Rights", echoing rights groups which accuse Israel of collective punishment. Former President Jimmy Carter last month referred to the blockade as an atrocity.

It is not enough to call for action on the boat raid itself — the aim should be to pressure the Middle East Quartet (US, EU, UN and Russia) to stop giving political cover to Israel's blockade.

✩ There is no need to use hyperbole in referring to the attack on the boat — it is not the worst thing Israel has done by far. The attack on the boat and international indignation should be channeled towards accountability for the Gaza war (notably for the international process started by the Goldstone Report to continue at the UN), and ultimately an end to settlements leading to an end to the occupation. Israel, under the present government, may be pressure-proof, but its allies in the US and EU are not.

Countering the spin:

It's interesting to see that Israel's most establishment defenders, especially in the US, are generally keeping mum. The NYT has not commented on the crisis in its opinion page, the Obama administration has put out a weak non-committal statement, and AIPAC has not said anything. They had the handy excuse yesterday that it was a public holiday in the US, which gave them time to prepare their approach.

✩ First of all, the Obama administration cannot be allowed to get away with its weak statement or obstructionism at the UN on behalf of Israel. As Marina Ottaway of the Carnegie Endowment (hardly a radical person) puts it:

Condemnation of the Israeli action has been strong, not only in Turkey and Arab countries, but in most European countries as well. In comparison, the initial response from the White House is completely inadequate and President Obama will need to choose how forcefully to react. Obama must decide whether to sacrifice his credibility in the region in order to continue a well-established U.S. tradition of mild rebukes toward Israel, or break with “business-as-usual” policies and condemn the Israeli action. 

This is an opportunity to drive a major wedge between the Obama administration and its already nervous friends in the lobby. Let's use it.

✩ So far, major pro-Israel voices are obviously embarrassed and trying to find ways to spin it. Look no further than Jeffrey Goldberg for the model, which goes something like this:

I don't know yet exactly what happened at sea when a group of Israeli commandos boarded a ship packed with not-exactly-Gandhi-like anti-Israel protesters. I learned from the Second Intifada (specifically, the story of the non-massacre at Jenin) not to rush to judgment without a full set of facts (yes, I know what you are thinking: So why have a blog?). I'm trying to figure out this story for myself. But I will say this: What I know already makes me worried for the future of Israel, a worry I feel in a deeper way than I think I have ever felt before. The Jewish people have survived this long in part because of the vision of their leaders, men and women who were able to intuit what was possible and what was impossible. Where is this vision today? Israel may face, in the coming year, a threat to its existence the likes of which it has not experienced before: A theologically-motivated regional superpower with a nuclear arsenal.

This approach says:

  1. Oh, it's too confusing and too soon to know what really happened. BULLSHIT: the basic fact is that Israel attacked a boatful of activists and killed 10-20 of them in order to defend its morally bankrupt blockade policy. You don't need to know much more.
  2. The activists on the boat were not non-violent. BULLSHIT: They were provoked by being raided from helicopters by elite commando units armed with guns. They acted in self-defense, not offensively.
  3.  Bad leadership is responsible. BULLSHIT: People like Goldberg may growing ever more uncomfortable with the PR disaster that is the Netanyahu administration, but its actions are consistent with those of other governments that carried out attacks against civilians to assert Israeli deterrence — see Lebanon, 2006, and Gaza, 2009.
  4. Oh, look, Iran! BULLSHIT: This is a lame attempt to change the topic of conversation. There is an international process underway to deal with the Iran nuclear issue, and it will continue. The flotilla issue is completely separate, and related instead to the humanitarian disaster caused by the blockade of Gaza.

✩ You are seeing another approach in conservative pro-Israel sites such as the National Review's The Corner, where Michael Rubin argues it's a question of proportionality:

A lot of the criticism surrounding Israel’s actions against the Free Gaza flotilla center on proportionality. Did Israel apply disproportionate force? The same charges form the basis of the criticism leveled by the Goldstone Report and, indeed, also were leveled against Israel following the 2006 Hezbollah War and, before that, Operation Defensive Shield in 2002.

But why should any democratic government empowered to defend its citizenry accept Europe’s idea of proportion? When attacked, why should not a stronger nation or its representatives try to both protects its own personnel at all costs and, in the wider scheme of things, defeat its adversaries?

BULLSHIT: It's not about proportionality, it's about the use of force in the first place. Raising the question of proportionality not only sidetracks the issue, but it implicitly accepts that some use of force was warranted and makes it about the degree.

✩ Also at The Corner, the reprehensible Daniel Pipes writes:

Rachel Corrie has been an albatross around Israel’s neck since 2003; today’s dead on the seas off Gaza will prove an even worse source of anti-Zionism. Thus did the “armada of hate and violence” achieve its purpose. Thus did the Israelis fall into a trap.

BULLSHIT: This is the classic blame-the-victim approach. That Pipes stoops this low is no surprise, but shame of Der Spiegel (that "trap" link) for falling into the trap of using the same approach.

✩ If you need reminding, many are making the "Islamist flotilla of terror" argument by focusing on the IHH, the Turkish NGO that ran the main boat that was attacked. I've already highlighted that it's BS on a previous post.

Watch out for these arguments to crawl out of the cesspool of right-wing and Likudnik magazines and blogs and into the mainstream narrative, especially in the US where these people have made tremendous advances onto the pages of mainstream newspapers and television stations in the last two decades. And be ready to ignore them or counter them when necessary — they should not be allowed to dominate the conversation on this issue.

Update: Just saw Jackson Diehl's piece, which has strong words — the attack was "indefensible" and so on — but note how his main concern is to get back to his favorite pastime, bashing Obama from the neocon perspective (as he does unconvincingly on democracy in the Middle East). The bulk of his piece expresses his concern that Obama's tiff with Israel over settlement expansion means he has little wiggle room left to defend Israel on this issue. And so Diehl scrapes the bottom of the moral barrel.  

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Once again, feeling the hate in Tel Aviv

Footage from an Israeli protest outside the Turkish embassy in Tel Aviv. You'd think the Turks just killed a bunch of people on a Magen David Adom boat or something...

Reminds you of Max Blumenthal's work.

The flotilla crisis seen from Cairo

Sorry about the quality - cops telling me to leave...

It's impressive to see such a forceful international reaction to this morning's deadly raid on the flotilla of boats bringing aid to Gaza. Thousands have protested in New York, Istanbul, Ankara, Stockholm, Paris and many other places, in one of the biggest mobilizations on behalf of the Palestinian cause in years. 

Even in Cairo, where pro-Palestinian demos have been very, very tightly restricted since the Gaza war — since the regime doesn't want any reminders of its role in the Gaza blockade — today was a surprise. At first, the protest outside the Ministry of Foreign Affairs seemed disappointed, with only a few dozen participants. But this evening, thousands gathered at the al-Fath mosque on Ramses Square and staged an impressive protest, even if they were penned in by several hundred uniformed riot control troops and police officers, as well as tons of plainclothes security people and a bunch of baltiguiya (street toughs hired to intimidate, and need be, beat up protesters).  

I didn't get to come close to the mosque, because police people were everywhere (mostly plainclothes, which always leads me to say the equivalent of, 'who the fuck are you? where's your uniform? show me some ID if you're a cop' and that gets tiresome, especially since I probably only get away with it because I'm a khawaga) getting people to move off. But from what I could tell — confirmed by my colleagues Sarah Carr and Jon Jensen who were closer and there longer — it was a tightly organized affair, if not led by the Muslim Brothers then definitely Islamist-dominated. They even had a brief moment of shouting slogans against Mubarak, although that was quickly shushed down (my guess would be this is the old Labor Party Islamists vs. MB argument).

It's important to note that this is the biggest protest about Palestine since the Gaza war, in an atmosphere in which such protests have not been tolerated. We might see more in the next few days, including on Friday after prayers. This may revive local activism on Gaza as well as linkages made between the situation there and the situation in Egypt — notably the Mubarak regime's collaboration with Israel on the blockade. Expect a fierce fight in the media over this in the next few days, and more opportunities to express all sorts of grievances. But when Turkey expels its ambassador and Egypt is seen to be doing nothing, it looks very, very bad for Cairo.

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Bullshit alert: Haaretz

Haaretz, the sometimes leftish Israeli newspaper, ran a story with quotes from the Israeli soldiers who were involved in this morning's raid. Here's the beginning:

The left-wing activists on board a flotilla carrying aid to the Gaza Strip tried to lynch the Israel Navy commandos who stormed their Turkish-flagged ship early Monday, Israel Defense Forces sources told Haaretz.

The commandos, who intercepted the Turkish ferry Mavi Marmara after it ignored orders to turn back, said they encountered violent resistance from activists armed with sticks and knives. According to the soldiers, the activists threw one of their comrades from the upper deck to the lower after they boarded.

Activists attacked a commando with iron bars as he descended onto the ship from a helicopter, the army said. The IDF said its rules of engagement allowed troops to open fire in what it called a "life-threatening situation".

The soldiers said they were forced to open fire after the activists struck one of their comrades in the head and trampled on him. A senior field commander ordered the soldiers then to respond with fire, a decision which the commandos said received full backing the military echelon.

To be verified, and I don't have a problem with that. They ran a the following picture and caption with the story, though:


I don't know about you, but that guy doesn't particularly look like a leftist activist and the reporters and photographers standing behind him (who are supposed to be on separate ship) seem pretty relaxed for a bunch of people who've just seen 10 to 20 people killed. Not to mention, what's he doing with that knife if the IDF is already in control of the ship? And why is there no attribution to the picture, unlike the others featured in the article?

Update: I've added the link to the Haaretz story above, and for another ludicrous version of events being fed to the Israeli media, see this story titled "A brutal ambush at sea" — yes, they mean the activists!!!


How Israel sets the TV agenda

This morning was a powerful example how a well-organized press strategy, combined with hasbara, can drive the media agenda. As the story of the flotilla unfolded, I was zapping between BBC World, CNN, Al Jazeera English, Al Jazeera Arabic and BBC Arabic. The Arabic channels I'll discount, they were mostly reporting from Gaza or featuring well-known commentators like Abdel Bari Atwan (which, mind you, I don't find particularly useful.) Most of the English channels were struggling to respond to the crisis. CNN was late to the story and featured analysis from the talented Ben Wedeman in Cairo, which suggests it did not have someone ready in Israel or Palestine. With all due respect to Ben, an excellent correspondent, CNN was just not on top of the story. BBC World wasn't either — it's been clear for years the channel is chronically underfunded.

Al Jazeera English had multiple correspondents available reporting live, as well as people in-studio. It covered the issue non-stop for much of the morning. But TV is highly demanding medium, it needs new content all the time — and not just information, but video and sound. For a couple of hours this morning AJE was going from one Israeli official or commentator for another, the IDF has scheduled several press conferences, as did the Prime Minister's office and the Foreign Ministry. They controlled the news cycle by having their message dominate the airwaves in those early hours, the TV stations — starved for content since there was a communications blackout from the flotilla ships and Israel's military censor was no doubt squashing other aspects of the story — were running the Israeli viewpoint non-stop.

AJE compounded that by having its correspondents (one of them in particular not very quick-witted) constantly repeat what the Israelis were saying, and being ineffective in taking Israeli officials to task. And the Free Gaza flotilla organizers did not plan ahead — they did not have representatives who could be easily available in Israel/Palestine near where TV cameras were, few on the boats to talk by telephone, or others elsewhere who could go to studios. This oversight really impacted the early TV version of the crisis, allowing the other side's message to dominate.

Just in terms of international law, it might be noted that the blockade is illegal, as is piracy — which is what seizing control of a boat flying a non-enemy flag in international waters is. The focus should be on that the boat was full of unarmed activists, that the Israelis fired on the ship before boarding, as well as the wider issue of the humanitarian disaster in Gaza. We need reporters that raise these issues and don't just respond to unsubstantiated claims by officials.

How Israeli hasbara works

Hasbara is the Hebrew word for public diplomacy, i.e. the role people outside of government can have to spread pro-Israel messages and attack Israel's critics. It is a tried and tested propaganda method long relayed not only by Israeli citizens, but also pro-Israel lobbies (e.g. AIPAC), pro-Israel Jewish community groups (e.g. CRIF) and pro-Israel think tanks (e.g. WINEP). With the advent of the web, pro-Israel groups working in tandem with Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs has conducted an often successful and often intensive hasbara effort targeting bloggers. This has included, for instance, efforts to leave comments in blog posts regarding Israel to defend the Israeli perspective.

In the days before the flotilla's last journey towards Gaza, blogs such as this one were targeted by a message saying that the IHH, the Turkish humanitarian organization that owned the largest boat raided today, had links to al-Qaeda. Considering that IHH is legally recognized everywhere except the UN, engages in humanitarian actions with many other organizations and has consultative status with the UN, I am skeptical. IHH does seem supportive of Gazans and Hamas, but that's no crime and it's certainly not "fundraising for al-Qaeda." 

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Twitter and the Gaza Flotilla

Above is a dynamically updated chart from Trendistic.com, a service that tracks trending topics on Twitter. It shows how much Twitter users have been using the hashtag #flotilla over the course of the past week, and naturally this includes a peak since this morning. According to Trendistic, #flotilla is one of the top trending topics at the moment, accounting 0.78% of tweets worldwide.

But you wouldn't know that from Twitter itself, which has #4wordsbeforedeath trending. It was popular last night, but as this time only accounts for 0.18% of tweets. So what gives?

There is some speculation that Twitter may be banning #flotilla from its trending calculations. Twitter can ban common words so as not to give false results. But #flotilla is hardly a common word. Last June, Twitter intervened (at the request of the State Dept.) to keep its servers going when #iranelection was trending. It was rightly applauded for doing so. So what's up with not allowing #flotilla to trend, and redirecting searches on the word to the homepage (just try it from your account.)

Update: There have been suggestions that Twitter's recently announced new rules on trending may be to blame. On Twitter's site, it says:

UPDATE: Recent Trending Topics Improvements


Twitter is about what is happening right now, and we have recently updated our trending topics algorithm to reflect this. The new algorithm identifies topics that are immediately popular, rather than topics that have been popular for a while or on a daily basis, to help people discover the "most breaking" news stories from across the world. (We had previously built in this 'emergent' algorithm for all local trends, described below.) We think that trending topics which capture the hottest emerging trends and topics of discussion on Twitter are the most interesting. While this is very much a work in progress, with this tweak we have taken a big step toward capturing how trends quickly emerge and grow on Twitter.  We also think it's compelling to know what the "most popular" topics are, and we will look to capture this in some way in the future.

It is important to note that this new algorithm does not "block" any topics from trending. If topics you saw regularly in your Trending Topics menu have disappeared or are not showing as consistently as before, do a saved search for them on your homepage. That way, in one click, you can view search results for topics that matter most to you. Also consider localizing your Trending Topics menu, as shown below.

These changes do not really help explain why #flotilla is not being allowed to show as trending. First, it is a recently popular topic. Second, Twitter's website does not allow you to do a saved search for them — when you enter flotilla or #flotilla as a search term, it returns the full latest twitter feed, not tweets with these words. The system has clearly been set up to ignore "flotilla" both in trending and in search. I've asked Twitter for an explanation, which I'll post here if/when I receive it.

I should also note that #freedomflotilla is now trending.

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

The Flotilla Murders

As I write this it is still not clear how many people have died as a result of the Israeli commando raid on the Free Gaza flotilla carrying aid supplies for blockaded Palestine. AP is still not going beyond four, Haaretz mentions 10, and al-Jazeera International says 15 or 16. Whatever the final number — which may still rise further as some of the wounded are in critical situation — it's pretty clear Israel decided to implement the naval equivalent of the Dahiya Doctrine on a group of largely unarmed activists carrying aid to a people who have suffered through three years of sanctions that have been endorsed by the international community.

There will be a lot of Hasbara over the coming few days, as there has been in the run-up to to this crisis. An important part in making the flotilla effort mean something will be to render it ineffective and bring back attention to the cold-blooded murders that took place in the international waters of the Eastern Mediterranean in the morning of 31 May 2010.

Hopefully we will see democratic governments, like Turkey, take swift and decisive diplomatic action to counter what amounts to an attack on Turkish citizens. The European Parliament can be mobilized over the attack putting its MPs at risk, although I don't expect much from the supine and cowardly European Commission. There is an opportunity here to bring pressure onto Arab governments, especially Egypt for its collaboration with Israel in enforcing a blockade. Out of this morning's tragedy good things might come to reinforce Israel's isolation and drive home the larger point that it has literally been getting away with murder for far too long. 

From Deir Yassin in 1948 to Khan Yunis in 1956 all the way to Qana in 1996, Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2009, there has been effort for accountability against all odds. The flotilla murders are an occasion to bring attention to other even greater crimes, starting by making sure the international investigation by the Goldstone Commission actually goes somewhere.

Update: The Al Jazeera English video I had posted earlier has been "removed by user" so I am replacing with another from Justicentric (a great place to follow developments on this issue via twitter):

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.