Israel and Turkey – time for cool heads

Waking up to the catastrophic news of Israel’s attack on the flotilla that was trying to break the blockade of Gaza, my snap reaction was that this event had the potential to trigger a chain of uncontrollable consequences. Nothing has since happened to reassure me that this was an early-morning overreaction.

Perhaps most worrying is the potential for friction between Israel and Turkey, countries that once enjoyed an unexpectedly good relationship (£2.5bn in bilateral trade in 2009). Turkey was the aid convoy’s main national sponsor, leading Israel’s unions to retaliate with a boycott of the country.

According to one Israeli union leader:

Turkey had been wiped off the workers unions’ travel maps. In a survey we conducted among the participants in the semi-annual union heads forum, we found that Israel’s workers’ unions have had enough of Turkey’s hostility toward Israel, which in the past had been characterized by verbal attacks by the country’s prime minister, but had now shifted to active attempts to harm Israel’s sovereignty. The tourism boycott is a weapon that will send a message to Ankara that words and deeds have consequences.

But Tel Aviv may now be the capital to discover that deeds have consequences that can go well beyond a boycott. The Turkish government is reported to be threatening to send more boats sailing towards Israel’s coast, but this time to give them a naval escort. That would put the two countries on track towards a very dangerous confrontation.

Bradley Burston, writing in Haaretz, is also worried:

Perhaps most ominously, in a stepwise, lemming-like march of folly in our relations with Ankara, a regional power of crucial importance and one which, if heeded, could have helped head off the First Gaza War, we have come dangerously close to effectively declaring a state of war with Turkey.

“This is going to be a very large incident, certainly with the Turks,” said Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, the cabinet minister with the most sensitive sense of Israel’s ties with the Muslim world.

Let’s hope the Turkish government continues to pursue its grievances with Israel through the international system, rather than putting the two countries’ navies on a collision course. Otherwise this grim year could get soon get much worse – yet again.

Update: Channel 4’s Faisal Islam points to NATO’s charter, presumably with Turkey in mind.

The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence…

An armed attack on one or more of the Parties is deemed to include an armed attack… on the forces, vessels, or aircraft of any of the Parties, when in or over these territories or any other area in Europe in which occupation forces of any of the Parties were stationed on the date when the Treaty entered into force or the Mediterranean Sea or the North Atlantic area north of the Tropic of Cancer.

Update II: NATO will meet on Tuesday at Turkey’s request. According to an unnamed diplomat:

NATO does not really have instruments with which to deal with the follow-up from this type of affair. Turkey has not invoked article five which envisages all allies coming to the aid of a member country that is the victim of an attack.

But, given that numerous Turkish citizens appear to figure among the casualties, it is understandable that (Ankara) triggers political dialogue with its partners.

Update III: One to watch is the Irish boat – MV Rachel Corrie (yes, that Rachel Corrie) which is yet to reach Israel:

Five are onboard the Irish-owned vessel, MV Rachel Corrie, and all are safe. The ship was one day behind the main flotilla and is still on its way to Gaza.

Among the passengers on the Rachel Corrie are Nobel Peace Laureate Mairead Maguire and former UN Assistant Secretary-General Denis Halliday.

Does it sail on towards a second confrontation? And if so, how will the Israelis react?

More on the UN’s Gaza ‘lie’

A few hours ago, Daniel Korski suggested on Global Dashboard that the United Nations lied about the shelling of one of its schools – with the UN Secretary General, Ban-Ki Moon, playing a part in disseminating the falsehood in a statement in which he condemned this and two similar attacks as ‘unacceptable’.

Like Daniel, I don’t fully understand what happened, or why – but have been trying to track how the story developed. It appears that re-investigation of the attack was conducted by Patrick Martin, from the Canadian Globe and Mail. His story was headlined “account of the Israeli story doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.”

Martin interviewed eyewitnesses who told him that while “a few people were injured from shrapnel landing inside the white-and-blue-walled UNRWA compound, no one in the compound was killed.”  No shell landed in the schoolyard itself, he writes, but 43 people were killed by three shells in the street outside.

Martin’s report continues:

The teacher who was in the compound at the time of the shelling says he heard three loud blasts, one after the other, then a lot of screaming. “I ran in the direction of the screaming [inside the compound],” he said. “I could see some of the people had been injured, cut. I picked up one girl who was bleeding by her eye, and ran out on the street to get help. But when I got outside, it was crazy hell. There were bodies everywhere, people dead, injured, flesh everywhere.”

The teacher, who refused to give his name because he said UNRWA had told the staff not to talk to the news media, was adamant: “Inside [the compound] there were 12 injured, but there were no dead.”

“Three of my students were killed,” he said. “But they were all outside.”

Hazem Balousha, who runs an auto-body shop across the road from the UNRWA school, was down the street, just out of range of the shrapnel, when the three shells hit. He showed a reporter where they landed: one to the right of his shop, one to the left, and one right in front.

“There were only three,” he said. “They were all out here on the road.”

This account seems broadly consistent with the UN News Centre report that Daniel links to (and which contains Ban’s condemnation). In it John Ging is reported as saying that “some 30 people were killed and 55 others injured, five of them critically, when three artillery shells landed at the perimeter of a school, which usually serves as a girls’ preparatory school, in the Jabaliya refugee camp.”

Martin argues that the United Nations’ description of the attack was ambiguous and that UN agencies failed to correct “widespread news reports of the deaths in the school.” Israeli reports also seem to have been confused, however, with Mark Regev, the Israeli PM’s spokesman telling the media that (i) there was hostile fire from the school; (ii) the explosion that resulted was “out of proportion to the ordnance we used.” (e.g. that the school had been booby trapped).

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The UN’s Gaza lie?

One of the most disturbing stories to emerge during Israel’s recent incursion in Gaza was Israeli shelling of a UN school. This is how Reuters described it:

Israeli shelling killed more than 40 Palestinians on Tuesday at a U.N. school where civilians had taken shelter, medical officials said.

The BBC reported that

. . .at least 40 people were killed and 55 injured when Israeli artillery shells landed outside a United Nations-run school in Gaza, UN officials have said.

But though the BBC story placed the shell outside the school, UN officials have now set the record straight. As Haaretz reports, Maxwell Gaylord, the UN humanitarian coordinator in Jerusalem, clarified that the IDF mortar shells fell in the street near the compound, and not on the compound itself.

UNRWA said that the source of the mistaken story had originated “with a separate branch of the United Nations.” Unfortunately, this branch seems to have pretty good access to the UN Secretary-General’s office, because on 6 January 2009 Ban Ki-Moon himself spoke out against Israel’s “totally unacceptable” attacks against what the UN’s own News Centre called “three clearly-marked United Nations schools, where civilians were seeking refuge from the ongoing conflict in Gaza”.

Who knows what actually happened. The fog of war was deliberately made thicker by both the IDF and Hamas. It is clear many people, including civilians, died in Gaza. But the UN school story is beginning to look like the Jenin “massacre” story from 2002. Then the Palestinian news agency Wafa was reporting that Israel had committed the “massacre of the 21st century” in the Palestinian refugee camp in Jenin. “Medical sources” informed Wafa of “hundreds of martyrs.” Reports of the supposed Israeli atrocities in Jenin were spread by Palestinian sources on CNN and elsewhere.

But this turned out to be a lie. There was a battle in Jenin. But the “hundreds” of martyrs were an invention. The death toll was 56 Palestinians, the majority of them combatants, and 23 Israeli soldiers. By then, however, the story had served its purpose, much the same as the UN school story did.

In war, information is a weapon. But not one usually used by the UN.

Saudi Arabia’s warning to the US

If you missed Turki al-Faisal’s op-ed in the FT last week, then take a look.  Entitled “Saudi Arabia’s patience is running out”, the language of the former Saudi Ambassador to the UK and the US (and before that the long-time head of Saudi intelligence) is blunt.  For instance:

Unless the new US administration takes forceful steps to prevent any further suffering and slaughter of Palestinians, the peace process, the US-Saudi relationship and the stability of the region are at risk. Prince Saud Al-Faisal, Saudi foreign minister, told the UN Security Council that if there was no just settlement, “we will turn our backs on you” …

America is not innocent in this calamity. Not only has the Bush administration left a sickening legacy in the region, but it has also, through an arrogant attitude about the butchery in Gaza, contributed to the slaughter of innocents. If the US wants to continue playing a leadership role in the Middle East and keep its strategic alliances intact – especially its “special relationship” with Saudi Arabia – it will have to revise drastically its policies vis a vis Israel and Palestine.

Think that’s strong?  Try this:

Last week, President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad of Iran wrote a letter to King Abdullah, explicitly recognising Saudi Arabia as the leader of the Arab and Muslim worlds and calling on him to take a more confrontational role over “this obvious atrocity and killing of your own children” in Gaza. The communiqué is significant because the de facto recognition of the kingdom’s primacy from one of its most ardent foes reveals the extent that the war has united an entire region, both Shia and Sunni. Further, Mr Ahmadi-Nejad’s call for Saudi Arabia to lead a jihad against Israel would, if pursued, create unprecedented chaos and bloodshed. So far, the kingdom has resisted these calls, but every day this restraint becomes more difficult to maintain …

Today, every Saudi is a Gazan, and we remember well the words of our late King Faisal: “I hope you will forgive my outpouring of emotions, but when I think that our Holy Mosque in Jerusalem is being invaded and desecrated, I ask God that if I am unable to undertake Holy Jihad, then I should not live a moment more.”

The FT followed Turki’s article up with a leader yesterday, observing that:

Anyone with a stake in the stability of the wider Middle East should take very seriously the warning set forth in the Financial Times last Friday by Prince Turki al-Faisal … The Saudis have emitted a crescendo of warnings, as Arab leaders over the past decade have lost faith in American leadership and signalled they may make their own arrangements: hostile to Israel, in detente with Iran, and turning their backs on the US – unless it can restrain its Israeli ally. 

Pretty sobering.  Also worth checking out this analysis from a retired US foreign service officer who was twice posted to Sauid Arabia.