Ambassador Michael Oren talks about Israel’s flotilla incident
By Judie Jacobson
LOS ANGELES, Calif. – Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Dr. Michael Oren has been a visiting professor at Harvard, Yale and Georgetown Universities. A graduate of Princeton and Columbia, he has written extensively for the Wall St. Journal, The New York Times, and New Republic, where he was a contributing editor. His two most recent books, “Six Days of War: June 1967” and “Power, Faith and Fantasy: America in the Middle East: 1776 to Present,” were both New York Times best sellers. Raised in New Jersey, Oren moved to Israel in the 1970s. He served as an officer in the IDF in the paratroopers in the Lebanon war, a liaison to the U.S. Sixth Fleet during the Gulf War and as an IDF spokesman during the second Lebanon war and the Gaza operation in 2009. On Friday, June 4 – four days after the flotilla incident – he discussed what transpired, as well as its implications, with journalists from around the country in a telephone press conference, in which the Ledger participated.
Following Oren’s press conference, an excerpt of which is included below, and as the Ledger went to press, Israel announced that it will launch its own internal investigations into last week’s raid, rejecting a UN proposal for an international probe into the attack.
OREN: Let me begin with a little bit of background. Israel, since the Gaza evacuation in 2005 and with greater force after the election of Hamas, the overthrow of the Fatah government in Gaza and the firing of 10,000 missiles from Gaza at civilian targets in Israel, has imposed a naval blockade on Gaza intended to prevent the shipment of large amounts of rockets and other munitions to the Gaza Strip. The Gazans have access to munitions through the approximately 1,000 tunnels that go to the Egyptian border, but it’s hard to get a rocket through a tunnel – they can come in one at a time, but if you have ships coming in, you can get them in thousands at a time. Israel has intercepted in the past three years such ships massively laden with munitions and meant for Hizbollah and Hamas, so we know that possibility exists.
We also maintain a partial land blockade around Gaza. We allow vital foodstuffs, and medicines, but certain items are listed as contraband, particularly construction materials that we believe can be used by used by Hamas not to build schools and homes but to build military infrastructure, bunkers. We have been letting amounts of construction materials through to Gaza where the end destination is clear, such as a recent shipment of cement and iron rods for the construction of a U.N. school.
The land based blockade is intended not only to keep weapons out of Gaza but to keep a certain amount of pressure on Hamas to release our captured soldier Gilad Shalit, who has now been held four years without visitors, without a visit from the Red Cross, in violation of all international law.
We still have Hamas dedicated to destroying Israel. If you look at its covenant, it is not only dedicated to destroying the Jewish state, but to destroying the Jews worldwide. It is a genocidal organization. In fact, Hamas takes its orders from Iran. So there is no way that we can open the sea lanes to these rockets, which now have range to reach Tel Aviv, and will soon be able to reach any city in the state of Israel. It is a matter of vital national security. Were Hamas allowed access to this weaponry then the Palestinian Authority would probably also crumble on the West Bank and there would no peace process. No peace; a direct route to war would be the result of any breakdown of our naval blockade.
In the past two years we have intercepted nine such flotillas all without violence. In this particular case there were six ships, five were directed to an Israel port without violence. One of these ships put up a fight. This ship came from Turkey. It was a ship under the control of IHH, an organization that has been linked by American, Israeli and other foreign intelligence agencies with radical extremist groups including Al Qaeda. Members of this organization chanted the equivalent of “Death to the Jews, death to the Jews” before getting on board. Some of them made martyrdom tapes before getting on board, and they came on board armed with iron rods, knives, possibly other weapons – we’re still investigating that because we found several cartridges on board that did not match Israeli weaponry and some of our soldiers were shot.
The flotilla was met in the open sea, far from the coast, for the simple reason that Hezbollah has rockets that can reach 65 miles out to sea and they have light weapons, certainly machine guns that can shoot several miles out to sea. So, we decided for the safety of our troops and indeed for the safety of the people aboard the flotilla that this operation take place outside the territorial waters of Israel. Gaza does not have territorial waters because it is not a sovereign state. That is in complete conformity with international law. By international law, [a country can maintain] a naval blockade against a hostile entity, and ships destined for that entity can be intercepted on the open seas. That is precisely how the U.S. and its allies maintained its naval blockade of Germany and Japan during World War II.
The operation was very complex. The Israeli commandos landing on board had no idea what they were going to encounter. They could have encountered women and children, so they did not use tear gas. They could not use the technical means that we use to disable lighter ships, because this ship was very, very big. So they had to board it. And they boarded it armed with paint guns, hoping to disperse the crowd. But a specially paid mercenary force of the IHH – basically a bunch of large thugs – was positioned on the deck where our soldiers landed. They divided into platoons. They were armed and they set upon our soldiers, whereupon in order to save their own lives they were forced to resort to their side arms and save their lives. As you know, as a result of this action nine people were killed, several dozen wounded.
The ship was subdued and brought to port. The cargoes of all six ships were transferred to Gaza, minus the construction materials. But Hamas refused to receive it.
Q: What was the reaction of the Obama administration?
OREN: The Obama administration was very understanding during the entire week. I did not hear a word of rancor from anybody in the administration. The administration has asked that the Israeli investigation into this incident include some type of international component. The Israeli government is considering this, but there are great reservations. The fear is that this will create a precedent in which Israel will be subject to international scrutiny every time it acts to defend itself and that our soldiers will be branded war criminals, as per the Goldstone model. So there is a significant amount of resistance to the idea. We also agree with Secretary of State Clinton when she says that the status quo on Gaza is not sustainable. We too would like to see an improvement in the status quo and we are open to any ideas that will help us balance the civil needs of the Palestinian population in Gaza with our very real security needs. There have been lots of ideas floated around the last few days – some type of international supervision. But we’ve had some very bad experience with international supervision. The international force in Lebanon was supposed to have disarmed Hezbollah. Hezbollah has more than tripled its rocket arsenal under the aegis of these international observers. We tried open borders with the European observers and Hamas chased them all away. There is no quick solution here; there is no magic wand. Meanwhile, we continue the policy of letting about 100 trucks a day laden with food and medicine into Gaza. There is shortage of neither food nor medicine in Gaza. That will be our policy until we can find a better formula.
Q: Columnist David Ignatius suggested in a column this week that Turkey could be an even more dangerous foe than Hamas. How concerned are you about the rift in Turkish Israeli relations?
OREN: There has been much talk about our relationship with Turkey. Certainly I can only say that our policy has not changed, but Turkey’s policy has changed very much over the last few years. Under a different government with an Islamic orientation, Turkey has turned away from the West and has cancelled its maneuvers with us. The maneuvers were not cancelled because of this incident. Maneuvers were cancelled last year, and this year we were not invited to participate in these maneuvers. Turkey has embraced the leaders of Iran and Hamas. There is a tremendous amount of antisemitism now, even on the Turkish television airways. Prior to this episode, Israel had reached out to Turkey in an attempt to persuade Turkish leaders to reign in this flotilla or, failing that, at least to persuade the organizers of the flotilla to transfer the cargos to Israeli authorities in the southern city of Ashdod. The cargos would have been vetted and would have been transferred to responsible parties in Gaza. Egypt made a very similar offer. In both cases we were refused. Also refused was a request given to the Turks to the flotilla organizers that aid packages be conveyed to Gilad Shalit. We certainly do not have any desire to see any further deterioration with our relations with Turkey. Turkey is a very important Middle Eastern power; it has been a friend in the past. And we hope that the Turks understand that if they want to be players in the Middle East they will also seek to stem any further deterioration. But we have not seen a lessening of the verbal attacks on us by the Turks even today and I can’t say where this is going with any certainty.
Q: Can you expand on the ties between those aboard the flotilla and terrorist groups
OREN: We have a documented CIA report, a report from a Danish research institute, and even a report from the previous Turkish government about connections between IHH and radical Islamic terrorist groups, including Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Al Quaeda, and about IHH involvement in Jihadist groups in Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia and elsewhere. It’s all documented.
Q: Why is America not being more vocal in supporting Israel’s demands for the release of Gilad Shalit?
OREN: We are closely communicating with the United States about Gilad Shalit. We have had offers of assistance from the U.S. Sometimes we have availed ourselves of those offers, sometimes not. This has been done by very quiet channels that are far removed from the public eye. The government of Israel is deeply committed to securing Gilad Shalit’s release. It’s a delicate issue.
Q: How close is Israel to a confrontation with Iran?
OREN: Right now Israel is committed to the sanctions process. Next week the fourth U.N. Security Council sanctions resolution will be passed and that will serve as a platform for launching multi-lateral, bi-lateral, perhaps in the case of the U.S., unilateral sanctions against Iran which may prove effective in bringing about a modification of Iranian behavior. We’re particularly focused on the energy component – denying Iran refined petroleum products that they have to import, as well as interdicting exports of Iranian petroleum products. Right now we’re focused on the sanctions; we have to see if they work.
Q: What would you like to see in terms of support from those who support Israel?
OREN: We’ve had a hard week as you know. The press scrutiny on this issue has been almost unprecedented. And what has actually transpired here? An attempt was made to break a blockade that is essential for Israel’s safety and for the peace process. Israeli soldiers armed with paint ball guns attempted to interdict this flotilla and they were assaulted and attacked brutally by a radical Islamic group. And at the end of the week who ended up being charged? Israel. We were on the defensive. We need every assistance you can muster to uphold our right to defend ourselves; to uphold our right to judge ourselves, to inspect and investigate ourselves. This is a democracy. We need awareness of what the breaking of the blockade will mean, not only for Israel, but for the peace process. People who care about the peace process should be the biggest proponents of the Gaza blockade. That awareness is just not out there. So, my message to you is help us. Get the message out there. We need more help and we certainly appreciate it.