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Seeing reality in the Middle East

01/07/2010 | by Cole, Leonard A. (Prof.)  

WHO ARE you going to believe, me or your own eyes?

The question has staying power, having first been asked in a 1930s Marx brothers movie. It came to mind following last week's interception by Israeli commandos of the six-boat flotilla headed for Gaza. The passenger-activists claimed they wanted to deliver humanitarian supplies in defiance of an Israeli blockade. When the commandos boarded one of the boats, the Mavi Marmara, a fracas ensued in which nine activists were killed and dozens of others, including commandos, were injured.

Condemnation of the Israelis came quickly. French President Nicolas Sarkozy criticized them for using "disproportionate force." 

Israel must explain the violence, said United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. The Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu deemed the Israeli action "murder conducted by a state." Such harsh comments reflect claims by flotilla activists like Iara Lee, who said the Israelis invaded the ship and "started shooting at people."

Fortunately, Israeli video cameras were whirring on nearby helicopters and seacraft. The sequence of events is available for all to view, and I watched it a dozen times. Here's what I saw with my own eyes: 

Commandos reached the top deck of the Mavi Marmara by rappelling down a rope from a helicopter. As the first soldier landed, several activists beat him to the ground with clubs and metal pipes. Other commandos were similarly assaulted before they could gain footing. 

One was thrown over the side, landing on a deck 30 feet below. Later he was found to have suffered critical injuries including a stab wound to his stomach.

At first, the commandos' sidearms remained holstered in accordance with orders to avoid using deadly force. As the video confirms, the violence was initiated exclusively by the pipe-and-knife wielding activists. Not a single commando had drawn his gun in those early moments. Only after it became obvious that their lives were threatened did the Israelis resort to shooting.

The commandos at most had expected passive resistance from the self-proclaimed peace activists. Poor intelligence? Naiveté? No doubt. But the Israelis were certainly within their rights to prevent unchecked materials from reaching Gaza. Hamas, the Palestinian terrorist organization that has run the territory since 2006, denies Israel's right to exist. It has fired thousands of rockets into Israeli towns. Israel, accordingly, has insisted that goods entering Gaza be inspected to assure they do not include weapons or other combat materials.

The claim that the Israelis were "murderers" is belied not only by the video, but by the fact that the violence was limited to the Mavi Marmara. The other five boats were diverted without incident to an Israeli port. But the duplicity of the flotilla organizers was evident long before the boats set sail from Turkey. 

A key sponsor was the IHH, a Turkish Islamist group that was previously implicated in a plot to blow up Los Angeles Airport. Some of the Mavi Marmara passengers may have wished to avoid violence, but the jihadists among them shared no such scruples. As the Palestinian Authority's official newspaper, Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, reported afterwards, at least three of the passenger victims had told friends and family they wanted to become "martyrs."

In fact, the overriding determination by everyone on those vessels was to challenge Israel rather than deliver the cargo. Otherwise, they would have accepted repeated Israeli offers to move the supplies to Gaza after inspection. Which is exactly what happened after the boats were diverted to Israel. Two days later, a caravan of trucks drove the goods to the land junction through which non-military items are brought into Gaza every day. But Hamas refused to accept the goods, which further mocked the claims of humanitarian concern in favor of political show.

None of these facts count for the critics, who find fault only with Israeli responses but not with the pro-Hamas provocateurs.

The greatest shame about the flotilla venture is the diversion it has created from the preeminent Middle East issue. As the Gaza story commands headlines, Iran's march toward a nuclear arsenal continues unabated. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claims the Iranian program is peaceful. Despite evidence to the contrary by independent monitors, few nations have expressed alarm.

The irony is perverse. World leaders seem to prefer lies about Israel more than the truth about Iran.

Author is adjunct professor in the Division of Global Affairs at Rutgers University, USA; and author of "Terror: How Israel Has Coped and What America Can Learn."