Israel’s Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu said Monday to Turkel Commission investigating what Netanyahu called the “maritime incident” that occurred when Israeli naval forces boarded the Freedom Flotilla at sea on 31 May that “As part of the effort to prevent the entry of weapons into the Gaza Strip, my government has continued the naval blockade that was imposed by the previous government during ‘Operation Cast Lead’ in January of 2009 as well as continuing the limitations and oversight on the movement of goods at land crossings that was put in place in September 2007 … Our policy, therefore, is intended to maintain the naval blockade which supports the security blockade”.
Netanyahu, who was the first person to testify at the first official session of the Turkel Commission, promised that “During the closed forum [a future event with restricted or no media coverage], I will expand on my statement and explain why none of our diplomatic efforts would have prevented the Marmara’s desire to try to break the blockade”.
The Israeli Prime Minister did note, in today’s statement, that “Given the lack of effective pressure by the Turkish government and the lack of any desire on the part of the flotilla organizers to redirect their ships to alternative ports, none of the diplomatic efforts were effective:
•We tried to prevent the launch of the flotilla at the diplomatic and security levels. We did not succeed.
•We suggested transferring the goods through the Ashdod and El-Arish ports. We did not succeed.
•We held continuous contacts vis-à-vis and with the most senior levels of the Turkish government. We did not succeed” …
Netanyahu pinned this list of Israeli failures on Turkey’s unsuccessful effort [with Brazil] to help work out a deal concerning Iran’s nuclear program: “I must point out that on the 17th of that month [May], the Turkish prime minister met with Iranian president Ahmadinejad and with the Brazilian president to make a joint statement regarding an Iranian nuclear that was opposed by the United States and the other permanent members of the UN Security Council. Turkey thereby strengthened its identification and cooperation with Iran just days before the flotilla”.
Netayahu continued, in his statement to the Turkel Commission: “Forces hostile to Israel used the baseless allegation of a humanitarian crisis to try and break the naval blockade. This was and remains the primary motivation of Hamas in its efforts to encourage the various flotillas. From time to time, these things are even said explicitly, as a spokeswoman for the flotilla said on May 27, 2010: ‘Our mission is not to provide humanitarian aid, but rather to break the blockade’ … ”
He justified the January 2009 naval blockade of the Gaza Strip by two highly-publicized interceptions of arms shipments that took place years earlier — both of which were said to have originated in Iran, but one of which was destined for Lebanon: “I would like to explain how dangerous an open sea lane to Gaza is for the security of the State of Israel. On one ship, the Karin A, Iran tried to send dozens of tons of weapons to Gaza. On another ship, the Francop, Iran tried to send Hezbollah hundreds of tons of weapons, approximately two-thirds of the total ammunition fired at Israel during the Second Lebanon War. Due to all these security considerations, my government continued to enforce the naval blockade imposed by the previous government. We did so for the flotilla in question, as well as with the two ships that followed – the Irish ship and the Libyan ship. Before this flotilla, the IDF prepared to enforce the blockade, as it had during previous flotillas. Given the number of ships, their size, the number of passengers on board and their stated intentions, we saw the need to make a special diplomatic effort to try and prevent the flotilla’s arrival to the shores of Gaza – or at the very least to convince its organizers to dock at Ashdod or El-Arish and from there to direct the goods through land crossings after the appropriate security checks”.
Netanyahu outlined a number of diplomatic contacts made to try to prevent the Freedom Flotilla from sailing: “During the month of May, a continual diplomatic effort to this end was made by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs vis-a-vis many countries, including countries whose citizens were onboard or whose harbors could be used by the flotilla at any stage of its voyage – including Egypt, Greece, Cyprus, Ireland, Britain, the United Nations, and above all with Turkey. The Minister of Defense even participated in these efforts. Given the importance I attributed to Turkey’s central role in this flotilla, my office worked directly to assist in the diplomatic efforts vis-à-vis Turkey. Beginning on May 14, my office was in contact with the highest echelons of the Turkish government. These contacts, and later on the contacts of our Minister of Defense with the Turkish Foreign Minister whom he has known for many years, were intended to prevent any conflict with the Marmara flotilla. They continued up until the eve of the flotilla’s arrival off the coast of Gaza. I too personally appealed to a senior official in the Egyptian government on May 27 so that he would intervene with the Turkish government. However, as the date of the flotilla’s arrival neared, it became clear that diplomatic efforts would not stop it. In contrast, diplomatic efforts did assist in preventing violent confrontations with the two ships that came after this flotilla – because the Irish government and parties in Libya acted responsibly and helped prevent a confrontation and also because the organizers of those flotillas did not have any intention of confronting our forces – unlike the organizers of the flotilla in question, or more precisely, unlike the IHH activists on the flagship, the Mavi Marmara … Despite our ongoing diplomatic efforts, ultimately the Turkish government did not prevent the Marmara’s attempt to break the naval blockade. All our suggestions to re-route the ship’s cargo to undergo a security inspection in Ashdod and then be transferred to Gaza through the land crossings were in vain. We also did not hear a public message from the Turkish government to cool the heated tempers of the activists onboard. Apparently the Turkish government did not see that a possible incident between Turkish activists and Israel was against their interests, and certainly not something that justified exerting effective pressure of the IHH activists … Regarding the IHH activists, not only did they not prevent a confrontation, they announced their intention to seek one — they announced that they wanted to break the blockade and that ‘the Jews need to go back Auschwitz’. [n.b., Netanyahu seems to have taken this quote from recorded remarks made on a totally open transmission channel -- on which remarks over the radio from any ship at sea in that vicinity could have and apparently were recorded -- during the Israeli naval communication with the Freedom Flotilla in the early morning hours of 31 May. There is absolutely no proof that this remark was made by any crew member or participant in the Freedom Flotilla, and this is also, in any case, not an exact quote]
Netanyahu concluded by saying that videos taken by the Israeli navy [possibly augmented by footage confiscated by the Flotilla participants, though Netanyahu did not say that] helped many people to understand that “our soldiers faced a very real danger to their lives from brutal attacks with clubs, metal rods and knives and – as you have no doubt learned – from live weapons. IDF soldiers acted in self-defense. We made tremendous efforts to prevent injuries, but the IDF soldiers have the right to defend themselves”.
The soldiers who were beaten on board the Mavi Marmara were not, however, in danger — until their commanders ordered them to rappel down, one by one, from helicopters hovering over the deck of the ship carrying more than 600 angry and frightened passengers.
In his statement, Netanahu said that as the Flotilla sailed toward Gaza, he had “asked that the confrontation be minimized as much as possible and ‘that a supreme effort be made to avoid harming anyone’. I know that the Minister of Defense and Chief of General Staff gave the same order”.
He said he had “authorized directives” that included “embedding foreign reporters with IDF forces so that they could record and film the unfolding events in order to prevent the dissemination of false reports”. He ” said hewanted to ensure that there would be complete coverage of what would happen when our soldiers boarded the ships because I was afraid that, once again, there would be an attempt to try to slander IDF soldiers as part of the ongoing propaganda war against Israel. Unfortunately, slandering the IDF and the State of Israel happens time after time”.
To my recollection, none of the videos shown after the event were identified as having been taken by the “foreign reporters” who had been “embedded” with the Israeli Naval party that intercepted and eventually boarded the Freedom Flotilla.