Aboard the Mavi Marmara: An Analysis of Turkish-Israeli Relations

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June 28, 2010

Nearly one month ago, the Gaza Freedom Flotilla arrived at the port of Ashdod after a clash between the passengers of the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara and Israeli Navy commandos. The confrontation resulted in nine Turkish deaths, dozens of injured, and a crisis between two otherwise “friendly” states. When the Mavi Marmara was still somewhere in the Mediterranean with its passengers under arrest, we received a request from the Association of Turkish Jews in Israel calling for voluntary translators. In less then an hour, we were on an Ashdod-bound bus. As Turkish Jews living in Israel, we had already felt great distress upon hearing the news. We wanted to see for ourselves who was on those boats.

Before the flotilla crisis, Israelis used to ask us, “Why don’t Turks like us anymore?” Their question was not rhetorical. These days, Israelis who hear us speak Turkish on the streets of Tel Aviv no longer seek an answer, but rather lecture us on the bad behavior of Turks and say: “Turks don’t like us anymore.” For most Israelis, the Turkish attitude has become as clear as a cloudless sky. Most of the analysis of the flotilla incident has centered on the Gaza boycott. However, the lasting significance of the episode on the Mavi Marmara may be what it reveals about the damaged relationship between Israel and Turkey.

On the Mavi Marmara

In the aftermath of the flotilla raid, media outlets were bombarded with reports, as journalists, analysts and first-hand witnesses, who returned to their homes in Turkey, described their versions event. For our part, after two days spent translating for nearly 100 Turkish passengers from the flotilla, we were still confused about what had really happened.

Israeli media labeled all those on the boat as Islamist radicals. Turkish and Arab media portrayed them as a group of peace activists massacred by Israeli villains, akin to Nazis. According to what we saw, there were both activists and radicals on board, but the majority of the passengers fell into neither category. They were simply religious people motivated by their consciences to help the Gazan children whose pictures they had been seeing on television for years. Their humanist desire does not make them political activists nor does their faith make them Islamists.

We discovered from listening to the Turkish passengers that many of them were recruited through local humanitarian and civil society organizations and not the IHH, the Turkish group that organized the flotilla. The IHH, Insani Yardim Vakfi or Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms in English, is a Turkish NGO. In international media, some describe the IHH as a humanitarian organization offering services in over 100 countries while others describe it as a charity that funnels money to terrorist organizations. In any case, the IHH organizers understood the politics of the flotilla.

Gaza News

Most of the people actually onboard the ship, however, were not affiliated with the IHH, and did not have a political agenda. When we talked with them, most had no idea that an embargo actually bars entrance to Gaza. Many asked us in astonishment: “Isn’t Gaza a country of its own? Does Israel control Gaza?” When asked why they came on this mission, their answer was “To bring humanitarian aid.” One seriously injured man we spoke to in the hospital said that he was an orphan and boarded the ship to help Gazan orphans. The people we talked to were fellow Turks familiar to us–they were no radicals.

Two Gazas

For Israelis, the word “Gaza” awakens two main thoughts: The first is the captured soldier Gilad Shalit, whose photos cover the walls of Israeli cities, and transform him into a national symbol. “If Turks really wanted to help, they should try to liberate Gilad,” many Israelis said when the ships set sail. The second is Hamas and the Qassam rockets that Gaza’s “terrorist” regime regularly fires into southern cities of Israel. For most Israelis, the real victims of “Gaza” are the residents of the town of Sderot near the Gaza border.

Contrary to this perception, for the religiously conscious Turkish passengers of the Mavi Marmara, Gaza is a holy land occupied by a foreign power. Popular television shows in Turkey now portray Israeli soldiers as murderers; after the 2009 Gaza war, Israeli soldiers became “baby-killers.” Turkey’s Prime Minister, Tayyip Erdogan, made that clear when he addressed Israeli President Shimon Peres at Davos in January last year, saying, “When it comes to killing, you know well how to kill”.

Turkish attitudes towards Israel became even more inflamed in January 2010, when Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon tried to humiliate Turkey’s ambassador to Israel by seating him in a low chair and then ensuring that reporters photographed the event.. Despite subsequent Israeli attempts to minimize the incident, plus a Turkish diplomatic acknowledgment, many Turks have not forgotten the “chair crisis,” and the damage it caused their honor.

Meanwhile, here in Israel, the popular image of Turkey has also changed dramatically in the past year. Some Israelis decided to “excommunicate” Turkey by not enjoying cheap vacations on its beautiful shores after Turkey’s government sharpened its criticism of Israel’s attack on Gaza. Since Turkey began pursuing rapprochements with Iran and Syria, Israel’s right-wing government has been instilling suspicion of Turkey in both Israeli citizens and the Jewish Diaspora. Relying on the principle, “The friend of my enemy is my enemy,” official Israeli rhetoric is on a fast track to categorize Turkey as an enemy state.

Mavi Marmara as Symboll

Keeping in mind this summary characterization of Turkish and Israeli perspectives, the events on the Mavi Marmara look different. When the Israeli engagement began, what devout Turkish Muslim passengers saw were armed Israeli “baby-killers” dropping onto their ship from helicopters. When masked Israeli commandos opened fire, the Turks did not know that the weapons were paint-ball guns; all they saw and heard were “non-stop gun shots.” Crucially, many of the passengers’ wives were below the deck. Not only were the men afraid for their own lives, but they also felt the need to protect their wives and honor. In the scenarios familiar to them from Turkish television, vicious Israelis would kill them all, rape their wives and use the humanitarian aid to celebrate. So the passengers attacked the Israeli soldiers, with the only weapons they had: sticks, kitchen knives, and metal rods that they “cut off the ship.” When these people were being processed in Ashdod, we even heard some who refused to drink Israeli water because they truly believed that it had been poisoned.

From the Israeli perspective, the commandos, armed only with paint-ball guns and pistols (the latter to be used only in self-defense), were dropped into a mob of angry people. What the soldiers saw were Islamic terrorists, since in their minds, aggressive Muslim men with long beards and long sticks can only be terrorists. Under very real attack, the soldiers resorted to using their only actual weapons, their real guns.

Years of misrepresentation of Israel by Turks in the Turkish media, and years of fear of Muslim men instilled in Israelis by Israelis, combined to trap two groups of people who neither wanted nor expected a violent confrontation. Most tragically, when the two sides fought, they increased the power of those on both sides who failed to protect them. The leaders of Turkey and Israel flexed their muscles and did so at the expense of Turkish civilians and Israeli soldiers.

In the popular media, the Israeli-Turkish friendship was broken over one petty old boat that used to make rounds on the Marmara Sea. Yet nothing happens overnight. The myth of an Israeli-Turkish love affair had been hanging on a loose thread for quite a while. Far from a love affair, relations between the two states have always been based on mutual interest.

It is unfortunate that our leaders lacked the slightest bit of vision and caused others to suffer the consequences. Most of the passengers of Mavi Marmara did not wish or expect to be involved in a violent clash, let alone find themselves detained in an Israeli prison. Turkish Jews did not want radicals to have another excuse to threaten their community. Turkish and Israeli companies who have been trading for decades did not want politics to block their business. Israelis did not want to lose another friendly nation in a world that is becoming increasingly hostile Israel.

We would like to be able to say that the Turkish and Israeli governments did not want such winds of animosity either. Unfortunately, we are not so sure about that.

Nathalie Alyon is the coordinator of the Journal of Levantine Studies and Medi Nahmiyaz is the coordinator of the Turkish Forum, both at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.

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