Friday, June 11, 2010

A Flotilla For Shalit

The Gaza Flotilla incident continues to make news in Israel. The latest revelations were that the Israel Defense Forces captured and then released to men whom, informed sources say, could have been used to negotiate the release of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier kidnapped four years ago currently being held by Hamas forces in Gaza.

According to the Israeli daily Yideot Achranot “The two were identified as a senior Hamas fundraiser and a Syrian intelligence official serving as the liaison officer for Iranian intelligence in the Balkans.”

One of the men was “Amin Abu-Rashid, 43, a Dutch national of Palestinian descent who lives in Rotterdam, and has the Hamas nickname of "Amin Abu-Ibrahim". According to the report, Israeli intelligence considers him one of the leaders of the Palestinian movement's fund-raising system and the chief Hamas fundraiser in Western Europe.

According to the Israeli paper Abu-Rashid was not only close to Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, the senior Hamas military commander assassinated in Dubai, but in interviews he gave in January, he said he was planning to confront IDF soldiers. In an interview Abu-Rashid was introduced as the “leader of Palestinians who are European citizens” on the flotilla.

The second man detained was Yasser Muhammad Sabag, a Syrian intelligence officer serving as the liaison officer between Damascus and Tehran's intelligence networks in the Balkans. Sabag has a dual citizenship from Syria and Bosnia and Herzegovina, where he now lives..

According to the Serbian news agency FOCUS, Sabag was released by the IDF and returned to Serbia along with a Turkish activist in the al-Qaeda affiliated IHH organization, which organized the flotilla.

FOCUS said “Its safe to say that he was not planning to bring any humanitarian aid to Gaza.”

Friday's Haaretz news agency reported that both the captain and the first mate of the Mavi Marmara, the ship that led the Gaza flotilla, tried to prevent the violent clashes. The captain said that he confiscated iron bars and parts of a steel chain that were cut by activists on the ship.

According to Haaretz. Captain Mehmut Tuval was asked whether or not he knew if the IHH activists were preparing a violent welcome to the IDF takeover, Tuval said that "they were preparing to violence against the soldiers: Yeah from what I was informed.".

The ship's first officer, Gokkiran Gokhan, told his investigators that special power saws were used to cut the chains and bars and that the ship didn’t posses those tools, but were apparently brought on board by the protesters, who also brought along walkie-talkies. The first officer said that a group of protesters had cordoned off a section near a lifeboat and prohibited anyone unauthorized from approaching. He said the IHH group was made up of about 40 people who boarded the boat in Istanbul.

Footage provided by foreign news services shows Israeli soldiers beaten with clubs and bars, pulled below decks, and held captive. Some of the footage shows blood on the walls. Other photographs show a collection of ax handles, iron bars and about a dozen knives collected from the protesters.

According to the IDF the soldiers felt their lives were in danger and opened fire. One soldier said he was under attack by a group of men who had already disarmed another IDF soldier and were approaching with that soldier’s weapon. The IDF soldier opened fire, killing six men in his attack.

Other reports say the IDF had standing orders to do what was necessary to make certain no Israeli soldier was kidnapped, to avoid a repeat of the on-going Gilad Shalit affair.

Israel has agreed to an investigation into the flotilla incident. Still, military sources in Israel have criticized the raid as hasty and unprofessional lacking planning and prior intelligence what to expect on board.

Once the ship was docked in Ashdod Israel media reported that the Israeli authorities found weapons and as much as a million Euros secreted in the cargo.

Other reports say that the violence was planned well in advance by a group of activists who boarded the ship in Turkey bent on a violent confrontation.

The IDF claims the blockade is in place to prevent weapons and materials reaching Hamas. The US has approved this blockade up unil now. The IDF is also using this blockade as a negotiating chip to force Hamas to release Gilad Shalit. So far that tactic has not worked.

The flotilla affair has brought the Gaza blockade into sharp focus. Hamas activists say they will continue to use this flotilla tactic to try to break the blockade.

One Israeli had an unusual suggestion: have a group of activists involved in the release of Gilad Shalit bring a boat to the Gaza shore with Red Cross and other aid representatives aboard all demanding to visit Gilad Shalit, provide him with food and medical treatment, and a visit with a Red Cross representative, Up-until now such a a visit has been denied by Hamas.

Perhaps with a PR move of that nature the captured Gilad Shalit may have a chance to see the light of day, be as much a topic of conversation as the aid ostensibly denied the Palestinians in Gaza.