UN condemns Israel raid on aid flotilla

UN condemns Israeli commando raid on aid-flotilla. Amnesty calls for inquiry into possible extra-judicial killings during Kingston violence. British troops come under US command in Kandahar. Russian delegation visits South Korea to assess Cheonan findings. All this and more in today's update.
Andrea Glioti
1 June 2010

After ten hours of negotiations, the UN Security Council called on Israel to liberate immediately the aid-flotilla’s ships and activists, while stressing the need for impartial investigations into the events of 31 May. The Israeli Defence Force (IDF) is responsible for the killing of at least ten civilians and the injury of dozens on board the Freedom Flotilla during the attack, launched on the aid convoy in international waters 65km off the Gaza shores. The six ships seized by the Israeli army were aiming to deliver 10,000 tons of humanitarian aid to the blockaded population of Gaza.

The United States were the only Security Council permanent member to avoid demanding explicitly the end of the siege of Gaza, although they suggested measures to ease the blockade needed to be taken; the British ambassador, Mark Lyall Grant, affirmed that ‘Israel’s restrictions on access to Gaza must be lifted in line with Security Council Resolution 1860’ and he was supported by France, Russia and China in their calls for an end to the blockade and an independent inquiry into the incident.

On the Israeli side, it has become evident that the storming was decided by a restricted group of senior ministers without consulting the inner cabinet, which is the body designated to approve such military actions. Despite these internal disagreements, the Benyamin Netanyahu government has unanimously advocated the right of the soldiers to self-defence against the assault of the activists. The IDF denounced the wounding of at least seven navy commandos, two seriously. According to Israeli military sources, some individuals onboard the flotilla were armed with knives and batons and they tried to seize the Israeli officers’ weapons. In video footage released by the army, it is possible to see one soldier being thrown from the upper to the lower deck of the boat. The IDF also claimed to have confiscated two live ammunition guns. The Israeli navy aimed to prevent the activists from docking directly in Gaza, and the boarding was reportedly intended to guide the ships towards the Ashdod port, where the cargo would have been inspected. The Israeli prime minister, Netanyahu cancelled his meeting with Obama in Washington to return home on Tuesday, in order to attend the inner cabinet meeting he convened for the same day.

Contrary to Israeli justifications, Al-Jazeera’s Jamal el-Shayyal, who was onboard the lead ship Mavi Marmara, accused troops of opening fire after activists had raised a white flag. The survivors have been taken to Ashdod, where the injured are receiving medical treatment and the rest are facing interrogation in Israeli jails. Israeli government spokesman, Mark Regev, defended the detention of the activists, maintaining that the flotilla crew comprised IHH members, Turkish Islamists known for their links with terrorist organizations. Many of the dead are reported by the Israeli media to be Turkish nationals. Replying to these allegations, Murat Mercan, the head of Turkey’s foreign relations committee, stated that Tel-Aviv is manipulating the truth, and that among the passengers there are Israeli civilians, authorities and parliamentarians. Meanwhile, the flotilla raid has sparked mass demonstrations across Europe, the Arab and the Muslim world. The Hamas leader in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, appealed to Arabs and Muslims to manifest worldwide their outrage in front of Israeli embassies. 

The White House has maintained a low-profile so far, although releasing an account of a telephone conversation between Obama and Netanyahu, in which the US president manifested his regret at the death of civilians and stressed the urgent need to shed light on the incident. American officials were also disappointed by the timing of the raid, occurring just after the start of US-mediated indirect talks between Israelis and Palestinians. The former US ambassador to Israel, Martin S. Indyk, underlined the unsustainability of the Gaza blockade, which ‘helps to stop Hamas attacks on Israelis, but seriously damages Israel’s international reputation’. Nevertheless, he stressed the need for the US to help Israel to solve the situation. White House foreign policy experts noted how Gaza has been largely ignored in favour of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank throughout the peace process, regardless of the impossibility of excluding a strip of land home to 1.5 million Palestinians.


The OpenSecurity verdict: Since Hamas took over Gaza in 2007 and Israel imposed the blockade, the Palestinians residing in the strip have had to live with supplies at approximately one quarter of December 2005 levels. Numerous fundamental items, such as pipes and fertilisers, have been refused entry on the basis of their potential use for the assemblage of weapons. Even food distribution has been periodically suspended, due to border closures or fuel shortages, with serious consequences for the living standards of a population largely dependent on the UNRWA supplies. According to Oxfam, the amount of cooking gas permitted to enter Gaza has oscillated between a third and half of the minimum requirements. The World Health Organization (WHO) stressed how Operation Cast Lead (2008-2009) worsened the critical availability of water in Gaza, already limited to half of the international minimum requirements before the conflict. The UN deemed the economic damage inflicted by the blockade ‘irreversible’, having dramatically boosted unemployment rates, and it ascribed the impossibility of reconstructing 12,000 Palestinian homes destroyed in the conflict to ongoing restrictions on cement supplies. This is an unbearable burden for Israel: forcing 1.5 million Palestinians to live in these inhuman conditions is not tolerable behaviour for a country considered by some the only democracy in the Middle East


Regardless of whether UN inquiries into the flotilla massacre deliver justice, this episode should serve as a reminder of the forgotten plight of the Gazans. It would be myopic to believe that US-backed indirect talks between Israel and Fatah will solve a conflict that also shapes the lives of the population under Hamas authority. The negotiations also need to comprise a deal between Hamas and Israel, with the end of Palestinian attacks and the handing over of the captured soldier, Gilad Shalit, in exchange for an end to the blockade and the release of some Hamas prisoners. In light of this goal, a firm US commitment to end the humanitarian crisis in Gaza will be also crucial to its relations with the Muslim World. On Israel's part, the right to self-defence should stop being unconditionally advocated, as this will not rescue the country from the risks of international isolation. Specifically, the flotilla raid opened a diplomatic crisis with Turkey, which is a pivotal ally of Israel in the Muslim world.


On the Palestinian side, the rift between Hamas and Fatah needs to be healed for the sake of the peace process. Apart from the benefits of a unified Palestinian front throughout negotiations, there is evidence of the division affecting the living standards of Gaza: in 2009 the responsibility for funding electric fuel was transferred from the EU to the PA, but by 2010 the amount of fuel supplied to Gaza has unexpectedly declined. The WHO has also blamed the internal Palestinian fraction for thwarting the supply chain of medicines in the strip. 

Amnesty calls for investigations into Jamaican violence

Amnesty International launched an appeal for international investigations into the bloodshed caused by four days of clashes between armed forces and drug dealers in Kingston, Jamaica. Under the state of emergency declared on 23 May by the Jamaican prime minister, Bruce Golding, the police were given extraordinary powers, including the right to search premises, restrict freedom of movement and detain suspects without a warrant. According to Amnesty reports, the security forces have seized four firearms so far, an unexpectedly small number compared with the death toll of the confrontations. Kerrie Howard, deputy’s director of Amnesty International America’s program, citing the low human rights record of the Jamaican police, argued there is a high chance of unlawful killings of disarmed civilians having taken place. Howard stressed how collection of evidence and the availability of independent forensic and ballistic expertise will be crucial to prosecute those officers who abused their power. Amnesty has also underlined the fact that more than 500 people have been detained in the aftermath of the state of emergency and the incarceration of these civilians has to be reconsidered by independent tribunals.

British role to be reduced under US command in Afghanistan

An American general took control of British troops in Helmand, in what is considered a symbolic reduction of the UK's role in Southern Afghanistan. Most of the 289 British casualties in the war occurred in this province. The British ministry of defence minimized the significance of the shift in its statements; although US Major-General Richard Mills will take charge of the 8,000 soldiers in Helmand, the command is scheduled to rotate between him and a British general. The change will actually affect only 1,100 Royal Marines in Singin and Kajaki (Northern Helmand province), who will be part of the US combat team. This provision does not mean that the US Marines will replace British troops, but they will be given the choice to deploy their forces there, if willing to.

The role bestowed on Major General Mills, who will be responsible for restoring order in the Southern province of Kandahar, will be critical in coming months. The US is aiming at restoring peace among the tribes in the area, while co-opting low-ranking Taleban fighters. Meanwhile, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has scheduled a peace Jirga for this Wednesday to seek a reconciliation with the insurgents, despite US wishes that these negotiations are pushed back after their major offensive against the Taliban this month.

Russian experts visit South Korea to verify the Cheonan findings

A team of Russian experts arrived on Monday in Seoul to analyse the outcome of the international inquiry on the Cheonan sinking. However, diplomatic sources revealed that China is not willing either to accept South Korean offers to provide more data on the supposed attack or to send a team of Chinese experts to put to test Seoul's allegations. Being a permanent member of the UN Security Council, China is in a position to veto any resolution to impose sanctions on North Korea.

The four Russian submarine and torpedo experts will visit the Second Naval Fleet Command in Pyeongtaek and the scene of the warship’s remains at Baeknyeong Island in the following days. Seoul is likely hoping that Russian confirmation will put further pressure on China to come into line with the rest of the Security Council. For its part, Moscow gave assurances that it will back the international community on the relevant resolutions, according to the experts’ findings.

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