UN launches inquiry as Israel intercepts second peace flotilla

UN launches inquiry as Israel intercepts second peace flotilla. US identified as world’s greatest user of targeted killings. Philippine rebels interested in renewed talks. Sudanese president barred from African Union conference. US missiles used in Yemen raids. All this and more, in today’s security update.
Laura Hilger
7 June 2010

All nineteen members of the Rachel Corrie, the second aid flotilla attempting to breach Gaza, were deported Sunday after being intercepted by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) on Saturday. The Rachel Corrie, organized by the Free Gaza Movement and loaded with humanitarian aid, had been heading for Palestinian-controlled Gaza when naval commandos seized it. The seizure of the Rachel Corrie was in sharp contrast to the deadly interception of the Mavi Marmara last week, in which eight Gaza solidarity activists were killed while attempting to deliver humanitarian aid to Gaza. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated that Israel used the same procedure aboard both vessels.

In response to last week’s deaths, the United Nations Security Council has called for an inquiry into the flotilla deaths. Israel has said it will reject any proposed international investigation, stating that Israel has the right and ability to investigate its own military. The IDF military advocate general has argued that Israel's interception of the flotilla was legal, as international law allows a country to stop a vessel in international waters if it attempts to breach a naval blockade. Netanyahu has described those on board the Rachel Corrie as "peace activists", but labeled the Mavi Marmara a "ship of hate organised by violent Turkish terror extremists".

Adding to tensions engulfing Gaza, the Israeli navy killed four Palestinian divers spotted of the Gaza coast early Monday. The military has said its forces prevented an attack on Israeli targets, but has not provided further details. The four men killed were members of a militant marine unit, an offshoot of Fatah, who were training off the coast of Gaza.

The openSecurity verdict: The events of the last week have created immeasurable turmoil and uncertainty for Israel. Condemnation against the Mavi Marmara incident and the strong Turkish outcry have created political conflict on a number of fronts, each likely to be exacerbated by the events of the weekend.

Any international inquiry will place additional pressure on Israel to explain how its attempt to stop an aid ship from breaching the blockade turned deadly and its motives for doing so. A potential inquiry, composed of representatives from Israel, the US, and Turkey, could ease the diplomatic strains with Turkey, once a close ally but now a vehement critic. UN International Envoy Tony Blair has said Israel has "a complete right and indeed a duty to protect itself against weapons or arms or other material that can be used for destructive purposes" but that it needed to "distinguish between that and checking the material that comes in." 

The Mavi Marmara incident has drawn widespread condemnation and cast a greater spotlight on the Gaza crisis. The interception of the Rachel Corrie, though peaceful, will likely perpetuate this criticism and draw further attention to the effects of Israel’s blockade against Gaza. Israel argues the blockade is in place to stop weaponry from reaching militants in Gaza, but the three-year blockade has deepened poverty in the Palestinian territory. At present, roughly 80 percent of Gaza's population depend on food aid. More importantly, the blockade, and the poverty it has induced, has only served to deepen animosity of Palestinians against Israel, creating an ever increasing potential for violence.

Since the naval attack on the Mavi Marmara, there has been sporadic rocket fire from Gaza into Israel, making likely Israeli retaliation. Likewise, if the deaths of the divers are violently avenged, the potential of conflict in the strip increases. With heightened regional tensions the result of the flotilla assault, such a conflict is unlikely to be confined to the Strip.

While Netanyahu is refusing to end the blockade of Gaza, the diplomatic fall out from the Mavi Marmara incident has forced him to consider some form of compromise, insisting that his government has “no desire to make things difficult for the civilian population in Gaza.” The government is reportedly considering ways to ease the blockade, as it says it has been doing over the past several months by eliminating, for example, a ban on luxury foods intended to put popular pressure on the Hamas government. However, such slight changes are unlikely to ease criticism, including that of its closest ally, the United States. Numerous governments around the world, including the US, have labeled the blockade ‘unsustainable’ and are calling on Israel to find a different way to limit the influx of weapons into Gaza.

As support for the Gaza cause increases, there is a strong likelihood that others will attempt to breach the blockade.  The Iranian Red Crescent has already announced its intention to send two aid ships to Gaza this week, which will undoubtedly spur tensions off the Gaza coast. Additionally, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has offered the services of the country’s Revolutionary Guard “to escort the convoys that carry humanitarian assistance for the defenceless and oppressed people of Gaza.” Given Israeli perceptions of the Iranian regime, it would be difficult for the country to avoid a forceful response to such a move should it prove more than rhetoric.

What is clear, however, is that the situation in Israel-Palestine is reaching a crossroads. Israeli actions over the last few months have already tested their alliance with the US and provoked Palestinian retaliation. Strong criticism and shifting foreign policy toward Israel in Turkey and the increasing public pressure on European and Arab governments from angry publics could lead to greater international support and action for the Palestinian cause.

US identified as world’s greatest user of targeted killings

A report released by the United Nations (UN) has identified the United States as the world’s No. 1 user of targeted killings, largely a product of unmanned drone attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The United Nations called the drone attacks part of a "strongly asserted but ill-defined license to kill without accountability" and argued that they erode the longstanding international rules governing warfare. The report cited two major issues: the extremely broad circumstances in which targeted killings are deemed legal, and the lack of accountability when they are used.

UN Human Rights Council member Phillip Alston said that he is "particularly concerned that the United States seems oblivious to this fact when it asserts an ever-expanding entitlement for itself to target individuals around the globe." During the eight years of George W. Bush's presidency, drones attacked militant targets 45 times; since President Barack Obama took office, the numbers have risen to 53 instances last year and 39 so far this year in Pakistan alone.

Alston has conceded that the conflict with al-Qaeda and other extremist organizations poses a unique challenge and notes that al-Qaeda routinely kills innocent civilians. However, he argues "the fact that such enemies do not play by the rules does not mean that a government can cast those rules aside or unilaterally re-interpret them."

US government and CIA officials have largely ignored Alston’s claims, citing the UN Charter’s inherent right of individual or collective self-defense if an armed attack occurs.

Philippine rebels interested in renewed talks

Maoist guerrillas in the Philippines have announced their interest in resuming peace negotiations with the new government of Benigno Aquino III, expected to be proclaimed president this week. Since 1986, the Philippine government and the NDF have been in on-and-off talks.

The rebels' negotiating arm, the National Democratic Front (NDF), abandoned talks in February after troops arrested 43 health workers attending a seminar, accusing them of being members of an NPA medical unit.

The New People's Army (NPA), the military arm of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), has been fighting the government for more than 40 years, making it one of the world's longest-running communist insurgencies. An estimated 40,000 people have been killed in the conflict, stunting national growth and investment in the affected areas.

There has been no immediate reaction from Aquino's camp, due to take office on 30 June. Aquino’s peace adviser, Teresita Quintos-Deles, has announced that the new government intends to reopen talks with communist rebels while honouring all past agreements on safety guarantees for negotiators and on human rights and international humanitarian law.

Sudanese president barred from African Union conference

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has not been invited to the African Union (AU) Conference in Uganda next month. The decision to exclude al-Bashir has been made based on investigations into al-Bashir's implication in war crimes in Darfur by the AU’s investigation committee and the International Criminal Court (ICC). The AU recently announced its agreement with the ICC to indict al-Bashir.

Sudan has rejected Uganda's exclusion of al-Bashir, Sudanese Foreign Ministry spokesman Mouawaya Osman stating "Sudan is an AU member and it is Sudan that determines who will represent it; and it will not accept under any condition (or) any suggestion from Uganda regarding this matter." Osman has called for Uganda to withdraw its statement and apologize to the Sudanese people; should Uganda fail to comply, Sudan will request that the summit be moved to another capital, one willing to host all AU leaders.

Al-Bashir is expected to be indicted by the ICC alongside Ugandan rebel leader Joseph Kony. ICC Prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo said that despite delayed arrest warrants for al-Bashir and Kony, he is optimistic that the apprehension of both is only a matter of time. Ocampo has also revealed that ICC judges have ruled that Sudan is not cooperating with a Security Council resolution to arrest al-Bashir and Kony, which will be announced to the United Nations Security Council next week for further action.

US missiles used in Yemen raids

A new report released by Amnesty International has claimed that American missiles were used in a Yemeni raid against al-Qaeda militants in December. Amnesty has released photos taken after the raid that show remnants of a US-made Tomahawk cruise missile. Cluster bombs were also apparently used in the attack.

Yemen stepped up its offensive against al-Qaeda militants in late 2009, launching a number of raids based on intelligence that western targets were in imminent danger. On 17 December, the Yemeni military launched two attacks on militant targets, killing more than 30 militants. US President Barack Obama congratulated his Yemeni counterpart, President Ali Abdullah Saleh, on their success.

The Amnesty report now indicates that the US actually supported the raid with cruise missiles. Phillip Luther of Amnesty International has said: "A military strike of this kind against alleged militants without an attempt to detain them is at the very least unlawful. The fact that so many of the victims were actually women and children indicates that the attack was in fact grossly irresponsible, particularly given the likely use of cluster munitions."

However, the governments in question have released contradictory statements on the US’s involvement. US officials have said that elite US troops provided essential support for the raids, while the Yemeni government has denied any US involvement in the attacks. Analysts believe the US is deeply involved in Yemen’s drive against al-Qaeda, but Yemeni leaders are keen not to appear too closely bound to American interests.

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