As discussed in Part 1, media coverage of the non-violent Iranian capture of 15 British sailors (in Iranian waters) focused on the humiliating failure of the sailors to open fire in self-defence. Journalists took a very different view of the May 31 Israeli attack on the ship Mavi Marmara carrying human rights activists and supplies to the besieged population of Gaza.
In this case, the key question was not why the activists failed to open fire (they had no guns) on their approaching kidnappers, but whether they used lesser violence – hitting with sticks and poles – before the commandos opened fire killing nine people and wounding several dozen more. The first two questions of the BBC’s online Q&A focused squarely on the issue of who initiated the violence:
How did the confrontation begin?
The six ships, travelling from Cyprus, were boarded in international waters. Commandos landed on the largest ship by descending on ropes from helicopters. They were attacked by the activists on board, and opened fire.
Who started the violence?
This is disputed. The activists say the commandos started shooting as soon as they hit the deck. Israeli officials say the commandos fired in self-defence. Video clips show activists wielding something that looks like a baseball bat and other objects.
The BBC asked “Who started the violence?” And yet, in the case of the British sailors it was taken for granted that the intention to capture the sailors was justification, not just for their hitting with sticks and poles, but for opening fire with machine guns, regardless of the lack of Iranian violence. And, of course, a bedrock theme of international law is the assumption that it is far worse for armed forces to attack civilians than combatants. In which case, if the British sailors were entitled to defend themselves with guns against seizure, what to say of activists armed with sticks and poles facing the far more egregious abuse of their +civilian+ rights?
This returns us again to the thought control of state religion. As discussed, actions by “security forces” are deemed to have more legitimacy than those of mere individuals. Israeli propaganda notwithstanding, unarmed “activists” are not “terrorists”, but they still lack the inherent authority of agents of the state. Devotees of the state religion view all attempts to resist the “security forces” attacking them as illegitimate. How can we understand the mind-set? The ultra-violent animated sci-fi cop Judge Dredd is fond of declaring: “I am the Law!” By definition, then, it must be illegal to resist “the Law”, even when it is attacking, kidnapping and killing you.
The Daily Mail, so incensed by the seizure of the British sailors, commented:
“While it is by no means certain that any of the British people were involved in the violence, yesterday it became clear that some — perhaps only a tiny minority — of the shipmates had violent intentions.”
A leading article in The Times was titled: “Israel has behaved appallingly, but those on board the flotilla also warrant scrutiny.”1
Can we conceive of The Times recommending “scrutiny” of the behaviour of the British sailors, if nine of them had been shot dead, unarmed, on a humanitarian mission?
Nine Civilians Killed: A Public Relations Disaster
We doubt there were any examples (we found none) of media articles lamenting the “public relations disaster” for Iran of the “kidnapping” of the British sailors. By contrast, the media has consistently focused on the Israeli attack in these terms. On May 31, Jonathan Marcus, the BBC’s diplomatic correspondent, commented on the BBC website:
This was always going to be a high-risk operation for Israel both in terms of reputation and diplomatic repercussions.
Taking over vessels at sea is no easy task, even if the units carrying out the mission are well-trained, and it is especially difficult if the people already on board the vessels resist.
The full details of what happened will emerge in time, but in political terms the damage has already been done.
The deaths threaten to make what was always going to be a potential public relations disaster for Israel into a fully-fledged calamity.
We wrote to Marcus on the same day:
Your comments on the BBC website are shameful:
“This was always going to be a high-risk operation for Israel both in terms of reputation and diplomatic repercussions.”
I guess it was a higher-risk operation for the activists. To present the massacre as primarily a PR problem for Israel is beyond belief — 19 people [sic — a widely reported death toll at the time] are dead!
Marcus replied on June 1:
Dear Mr Edwards,
Many thanks for your e-mail. Forgive me but I cannot see what is shameful about my piece at all. Indeed I think it presents a very fair picture of the implications of what happened.
Since you say you read my piece I imagine that you saw the excerpt from my longer radio piece which was posted on the BBC News On-Line site. I am the Diplomatic Correspondent here and my task was to look at the diplomatic/political ramifications of this incident.
The details of what happened were all over the BBC web-site and indeed carried extensively on our radio output. The BBC reported the reaction to this episode from Gaza, Israel and Turkey, something of which we should be justly proud, reflecting all shades of opinion. The introductory section of my piece, which you read, was intended to show that this was always likely to turn into a mess — though one would have hoped not the tragic mess that involved the loss of several lives. I stand by what I wrote and if you disagree then clearly you are at liberty to do so. I have added the longer radio piece below for your interest. Thank you
This was always going to be a high-risk operation for Israel both in terms of reputation and diplomatic repercussions. Taking over vessels at sea is no easy task even if the units carrying out the mission are well trained and it is especially difficult if the people already on board the vessels resist. The full details of what happened will emerge in time, but in political terms the damage has already been done. The deaths threaten to make what was always going to be a potential public relations disaster for Israel into a fully-fledged calamity. But the political ramifications could be even more serious. A Turkish charity had a major role in organising this flotilla. The Palestinian issue plays strongly in Turkish public opinion where the tide is already strongly critical of Israel. This episode will only make matters worse.
Turkish politics is changing. Groups like the military who always backed strong ties with Israel now have less political clout. Relations between the two countries are ratcheting downwards with few pressures operating in the opposite direction to improve ties. This incident at sea also firmly puts the spotlight on Gaza and Israel’s efforts to control access to the territory. Gaza is unfinished business with all three key players — Israel, Egypt and the United States all happy to try to isolate the Hamas government there. But as aid agencies warn this isolation comes at a price for the ordinary people of Gaza and this incident catapults their plight firmly into the spotlight.
We replied the same day:
Many thanks. Your piece presented the killing of perhaps 19 unarmed human rights activists as, first and foremost, a PR problem for the killers. Why is that shameful? Several reasons. First, it is something you would never do if the victims were British, or American, or indeed Israeli. Imagine if Hamas fighters boarded a ship in international waters and shot dead 19 Israeli civilians. It is inconceivable that you would write:
“This was always going to be a high-risk operation for Hamas both in terms of reputation and diplomatic repercussions.
“Taking over vessels at sea is no easy task, even if the units carrying out the mission are well-trained, and it is especially difficult if the people already on board the vessels resist.
“The full details of what happened will emerge in time, but in political terms the damage has already been done.
“The deaths threaten to make what was always going to be a potential public relations disaster for Hamas into a fully-fledged calamity.”
Your editors and readers would be outraged that you presented the massacre from the perspective of the killers, reflecting on the “difficult” nature of their task, even though they were “well-trained” (your implication), especially if people “resist”. Your analysis soft pedals the illegality and horror to a virtual standstill, and presents the killing as a kind of legitimate police action that went wrong, rather than a criminal slaughter of civilians. Can you honestly not see that?
Your email continues in similar vein when you describe the killings as merely “a mess”. Would you describe London’s 7/7 atrocity as “a mess”? Was 9/11 a big “mess”?
Marcus replied again on the same day:
In answer to your first line — no it did not — and you fail to accept that I was writing about one specific aspect of the story which was comprehensively covered by a variety of pieces from many people and many locations. I have taken time to respond to you but if you want to interpret my piece in this way, clearly nothing I say will convince you. JM
Marcus’s focus was repeated right across the media. The Observer commented:
“Israel has spent the past five days struggling to contain a diplomatic crisis and public relations catastrophe.”
“Israel has faced criticism around the world over the raid and critics said that the assault was a public relations disaster for the country.”
And The Times:
“Was it good public relations to be seen trying to turn back ships carrying crayons for schools, medicines for hospitals and cement to rebuild bomb-damaged towns?”
The focus on PR downplays the atrocity by viewing the incident from Israel’s perspective, by evaluating the cost to +Israel+. Again, this might seem reasonable enough, but the point is it +never+ happens in response to “rogue state” atrocities. Then, the emphasis is on condemnation, on the need to inflict damage through sanctions and bombing, not on evaluating any self-inflicted PR damage. In the immediate aftermath of the 7/7 suicide bombings in London in 2005, did any British journalist focus on the “PR disaster” for groups opposed to US-UK foreign policy? To even think of the slaughter in these terms would have seemed grotesque. The idea of a “PR disaster” implies a self-inflicted wound, which implies a blunder, feeding into the idea that the benevolent state and its allies make mistakes rather than commit crimes.
In similar vein, the Guardian wrote of “the botched assault” on the flotilla. The Independent wrote of the “botched commando raid”.2 So did the Telegraph3 and The Times,4 and so on. The word “fiasco” has also been used in numerous press articles. As ever, the focus emphasised that something +went+ wrong, rather than that something +was+ wrong, criminally wrong. In March 2006, the BBC’s diplomatic correspondent, Bridget Kendall, commented:
“There’s still bitter disagreement over invading Iraq. Was it justified or a disastrous miscalculation?”5
In other words, the worst that could be imagined was that Britain and America had been responsible for a “botched” operation, a “fiasco”, a “mistake”, a “public relations disaster”. On June 6, a Times article asked of the Israeli attack:
“How could such a catastrophic miscalculation occur?”
Yes, the state and its allies make mistakes — don’t we all? — but they always means well and are never responsible for crimes such as murder and the launching of wars of aggression.
Having all but demanded war in response to the “kidnapping” of the British sailors in 2007, Melanie Phillips responded to the assault on the flotilla with her usual hard-lock bias, insisting that Israel was “protecting itself against Turkish terrorist aggression” in the form of the “Turkish terror convoy”.
“It is becoming ever more clear that Islamist terror attacks like this are fiendishly staged theatrical events in which the western media – and beyond them, western governments — play an absolutely essential role in the drama.”
If the Telegraph had been outraged by the seizure of 15 British sailors, Stephanie Gutmann took a more understanding line on the massacre of nine unarmed civilians:
In a perfect world, the IDF would have boarded the ship and immobilised as many people as possible with tear gas or other forms of non-lethal crowd control. But it’s not a perfect world. Tear gas and the like take minutes to take effect, and apparently the IDF was met almost immediately with attackers. In a country of about 7 million you have to have slightly more protective rules of engagement for your soldiers than the US or Britain is employing in Afghanistan.
In a perfect world — or indeed in an imperfect world subject to the rule of international law – the IDF would not have boarded the ships at all. The ugly reality ignored by Gutmann was revealed in a Guardian article reporting autopsy results on the bodies of those killed. The victims “were peppered with 9mm bullets, many fired at close range”. The nine dead were shot a total of 30 times — five were killed by gunshot wounds to the head:
The results revealed that a 60-year-old man, Ibrahim Bilgen, was shot four times in the temple, chest, hip and back. A 19-year-old, named as Fulkan Dogan, who also has US citizenship, was shot five times from less than 45cm, in the face, in the back of the head, twice in the leg and once in the back. Two other men were shot four times, and five of the victims were shot either in the back of the head or in the back, said Yalcin Buyuk, vice-chairman of the council of forensic medicine.
Perhaps even in Gutmann’s imperfect world the Israeli soldiers could have aimed at the peace activists’ legs, rather than choosing headshots all but guaranteed to kill them.
Haneen Zoubi, an Arab member of the Israeli parliament, who was aboard the Mavi Marmara, accused Israel of intending to kill activists in order to deter future convoys. According to Zoubi, Israeli naval vessels surrounded the ship and fired on it several minutes before the commandos attacked. She said she was not aware of any provocation or resistance by the passengers, adding:
“They wanted many deaths to terrorise us and to send a message that no future aid convoys should try to break the siege of Gaza.”6
Just as Israeli and British armed forces are “kidnapped” while Hamas militants are “arrested”, so the surviving activists of the peace flotilla were merely “detained” and “held” by Israel, and later “deported”. Our Lexis Nexis media database search (June 11) found 94 articles mentioning the words “Israel”, “flotilla” and “detained” in the past two weeks. The words “Israel,” “flotilla,” and “kidnapped” were mentioned in 17 articles — all uses of the word “kidnapped” were by activists, not journalists.
In 2007, Tony Blair said of the capture of the British sailors:
“They [the Iranians] should not be under any doubt at all about how seriously we regard this act, which is unjustified and wrong.”7
Blair said this week of the attack on the flotilla:
“When it comes to security, I’m 100 percent on Israel’s side. Israel has the right to inspect what goes into Gaza.”
- The Times, June 3, 2010. [↩]
- Independent, June 5, 2010. [↩]
- Telegraph, June 2, 2010. [↩]
- The Times, June 2, 2010. [↩]
- BBC Six O’Clock News, March 20, 2006. [↩]
- Jonathan Cook, ‘Israeli MP tells of her terror on aid ship,’ The National, Last Updated: June 02. 2010 12:34AM UAE / June 1. 2010. [↩]
- ‘Blair joins Tehran seizure protest,’ The Guardian, March 26, 2007. [↩]