PM slams Hamas in flotilla probe
The Jerusalem Post (Link) - Herb Keinon & JPOST.COM Staff (August 9, 2010)
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, appearing Monday before the Turkel committee probing the flotilla incident of May 31, went on the offensive and said that in order to deal with the flotilla incident as a whole, it was necessary to clarify the government�s policy toward Hamas.
Over the last decade, Netanyahu said, Hamas has increasingly received aid from Iran �which also calls to erase Israel from the map,� and has essentially turned the area into �Hamastan.� �Iran provided Hamas with thousands of rockets, missiles and other arms� which were used, and are still being used, against Israel, he said.
Netanyahu said that Hamas was responsible for last week�s attacks on Ashkelon and the missiles fired at Eilat. He quoted Supreme Court Justice Dorit Beinisch saying that Hamas was ruled by an organization that works tirelessly to attack Israel and completely violates international law in initiating indiscriminate violent actions against men, women and children.
�Since this committee is dealing with the question of international law, I want to point out that Hamas is in violation of at least four war crimes: The call for genocide, directed fire at civilians, the use of civilians as human shields, and preventing the Red Cross from visiting kidnapped soldier Gilad Schalit.� Without mentioning the Goldstone Commission by name, Netanyahu said that �another committee, which claims that human rights and international law is important to it, for some reason almost completely ignored these central points.�
Describing his polices toward Gaza, Netanyahu said that once he came into power he determined policy toward the region based on four criteria:
Actions to free Schalit
Immediate reaction to all rocket attacks coming from Gaza
Actions to prevent weaponry from entering Gaza
Preventing a humanitarian crisis in the Strip
Regarding Schalit, Netanyahu said he immediately named Hagai Hadas as his point-man on the issue and agreed to German mediation. He said that within half a year the government made a deal that enabled the release of a cassette showing Schalit alive and functioning.
�I see that as very important, because the cassette is testimony for the whole world that Hamas is holding Gilad alive, and is responsible for his well being,� Netanyahu said.
Netanyahu said that three months later he agreed to a proposal to release 450 Hamas prisoners, in addition to another 550 Palestinian prisoners, in return for Schalit. Eight months later, he said, Israel was still waiting for a response from Hamas to this proposal.
�In parallel,� he said, �we are working through various and different channels to bring about the release of our soldier.�
�IDF will respond immediately to all rocket fire�
Regarding the policy of immediate response to rocket fire, Netanyahu said he was always of the opinion that restraint to a �dripping� of rocket fire would lead to �rain, and the rain would lead to a storm.�
Therefore, he said, he set the policy that the IDF would respond immediately to all rocket fire.
He said his government adopted the policies of the previous government regarding preventing the shipment of arms to Gaza, through diplomatic, intelligence and occasional operational efforts.
A special emphasis was placed on cooperation with Egypt, he said, in large part because of the need to prevent arms smuggling from Sinai.
Netanyahu said he raised this issue in each of his five meetings with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and that at there has been a marked improvement over the last year in preventing arms from entering Gaza from Sinai.
As part of this effort, he said, the government continued with the sea blockade of Gaza put into place by the Olmert government during Operation Cast Lead.
He said that even though Gaza is controlled by a terrorist organization calling for Israel�s destruction, Israel continued to provide electricity, water and fuel to the region, and allowed the transfer of food, medicine and other essential items.
In addition, he said, Israel continued to allow into Israel each month for medical treatment some 1,500 ill people and their family members, �something that shows better than anything else the absurdity of the claim that Israel is acting in an inhumane fashion toward Gaza.
�Would that the terrorist government in Hamas would act toward the Israeli population and kidnapped soldier Gilad Schalit with a fraction of the humanity that Israel shows the Gazan population and Hamas prisoners,� Netanyahu said.
He said that while the government managed to prevent a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, it did not succeed in preventing the perception of a humanitarian crisis.
Netanyahu said his government decided to ease the restriction on what was allowed into Gaza because with time these restrictions became a diplomatic and public diplomacy burden, which provided ammunition for Israel�s enemies and began to erode international support for the policy of keeping weapons out of Gaza.
He said that a more liberal policy of what was allowed into Gaza did not succeed in doing away with the international perception that there was a humanitarian crisis.
�Elements hostile to Israel used the unfounded argument about a humanitarian crisis inside Gaza to try to break the sea blockade,� Netanyahu said, adding that this was the reason Hamas encouraged the various flotillas.
�Turkish gov�t ignored warnings�
Netanyahu said that at a meeting of the septet five days before the Gaza flotilla incident, he spoke of the need to �sharpen� Israeli policy toward Gaza, in light of attempts to question the legitimacy of security blockade of Gaza because of the �lies� about a humanitarian crisis.
Netanyahu said he spoke at the septet meeting about the need to prevent arms from entering Gaza as the principle that needed to guide Israel, and that Israel needed to be the body checking the cargo, since that was the only argument that was being accepted by the international community.
The discussion on changing the policy toward Gaza, and easing restrictions on the goods allowed in, began before the flotilla, and continued afterward, Netanyahu said, admitting that the flotilla and international reaction to it �sped up this decision.�
Netanyahu cited the Karine A ship, interdicted by Israel in 2002, as an example of why the sea blockade was so important. On that one ship, he said, the Iranians tried to send to Gaza dozens of tons of weaponry.
On another ship headed for Hizbullah, Netanyahu said, Iran was trying to send two-thirds of all the ammunition that was fired on Israel during the Second Lebanon War.
Because of the large number of vessels in the Gaza flotilla, Netanyahu said that Israel tried through diplomatic efforts to prevent them setting sail � or at least to convince the organizers to dock in Ashdod or El Arish, and then send the cargo overland to Gaza.
Diplomatic efforts were directed toward those countries whose citizens were participating in the flotilla, or whose docks were being used by the ships, including Egypt, Greece, Cyprus, Ireland, Britain, the UN and �first and foremost, Turkey itself.�
Netanyahu said that his office was in direct contact with the highest level of the Turkish government, and that Defense Minister Ehud Barak was in contact with the Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who he has known for years.
Those efforts, aimed at preventing a confrontation with the Mavi Marmara, continued until the night the ship sailed close to Gaza. Netanyahu said he also asked the Egyptians to talk to the Turks. �As the date of the arrival of the flotilla came close, it became clear that these diplomatic efforts would not stop it,� Netanyahu said.
In contrast, he said, diplomatic efforts did succeed in preventing a conflict with two vessels that set sail for Gaza after that, �since the Irish government and sources in Libya acted responsibly and helped prevent a confrontation,� and since the organizers of those boats were not looking for a confrontation with the IDF.
This, he said, stood in direct opposition to the IHH, which organized the Turkish flotilla.
Netanyahu said Israel did not hear any public message from the Turkish government to tamp down the �fervor� of the activists on the Mavi Marmara.
�Apparently the Turkish government did not see the possible friction between the Turkish activists and Israel as anything that ran contrary to its interests, and certainly nothing that justified using effective pressure against the IHH activists,� he said.
�Despite our continuous diplomatic efforts, ultimately the Turkish government did not prevent the attempt by the Marmara to violate the naval blockade... It appears that (Turkey) did not see in the prospect of a clash between Turkish activists and Israel something that clashed with its interests...�
Netanyahu said that in the 14 days prior to the flotilla, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and their Brazilian counterpart for a public declaration on a deal to transfer some Iranian uranium abroad that was opposed to the position of the US and other members of the UN Security Council.
�With that Turkey strengthened its identification and cooperation with Iran just days before the flotilla,� Netanyahu said.
And, Netanyahu said, not only did the IHH activists not try to find a way out of confrontation, they rather declared they were looking for it, that they wanted to break the blockade, and that the Jews �needed to return to Auschwitz.�
Netanyahu quoted the spokesman of the Mavi Marmara as saying, �Our goal is not to bring humanitarian aid, but rather to break the blockade.�
He said that at that meeting he asked for ideas how to minimize the diplomatic and hasbara damage that seemed inevitable from the event.
He said that since he was about to set off for a meeting with US President Barack Obama, he delegated responsibility for dealing with the diplomatic and hasbara aspects of the flotilla.
�I requested to minimize as much as possible the friction and �do everything possible to prevent physical harm.� I also know that those were the directives of the Defense Minister and Chief of General Staff,� he said.
The prime minister said he gave instructions on how to reduce the hasbara damage, including imbedding foreign reporters with IDF troops so that they could see and film for themselves what was happening and prevent distorted coverage. He said he wanted complete coverage to prevent distortions and libel against the IDF � as occurred during the IDF�s Operation in Jenin in 2002, the Second Lebanon War in 2006 and Operation Cast Lead in 2008-9 -- as part of the propaganda war against Israel.
Netanyahu said that in the beginning of the raid on the Mavi Marmara, the first reports claimed that IDF soldiers killed peaceful peace activists. �Only when a video was distributed a couple hours afterward did the truth begin to come out. Imagine what would have happened had we not had those videos,� he said.
�With the distribution of the videos, the understanding began to seep in among honest and rational people in the world that the Marmara, in an understatement, was not exactly the love boat, and the IHH were not exactly peaceful peace activists.�
Netanyahu concluded his opening statement by saying the commandos were �brutally� attacked by activists with metal bars, clubs, knives and even guns.
�The soldiers acted in self defense,� he said. �We took great measures to prevent physical harm, but the soldiers have the right to defend themselves.�
Netanyahu opened his testimony with a passionate defense of Israel�s democracy and ability to investigate itself.
In the Middle East, he said, �democracy is a rare breed.� Israel, unlike other countries in the region where the rule is by terror and dictatorship, governs by the rule of law.
Netanyahu said that his appearance before the panel was proof of the high democratic standards that are applied in Israel.
�Israel is a democracy living under attacks�
Netanyahu said Israel was an example of a democracy living under attacks and unprecedented threats, but still managed to �preserve democratic values and security needs at the same time.� One of the reasons Israel is able to succeed in maintaining its democracy and preserving its security is because the country is constantly checking itself, he said.
Netanyahu said his testimony was a refutation to those who said that Israel cannot investigate itself. �There is no state or army that investigates itself more than Israel and the IDF,� he said, arguing that few of those countries pointing fingers at Israel, and saying it was unable to investigate itself, investigate themselves to the degree that Israel does.
The prime minister, in his opening remarks, said he was convinced the committee will see that Israel and the IDF acted according to international law, and that the IDF commandos on the Marvi Marmara exhibited �unusual courage� in defending themselves against clear and present danger to their lives.
The committee, called �The Public Commission to Examine the Maritime Incident of May 31 2010,� is headed by retired Supreme Court justice Jacob Turkel. The prime minister is the first to testify and is expected to do so for around five hours.
In brief opening remarks which were broadcast live, Turkel officially opened proceedings and said that while parts of the testimony would be made public, others would remain confidential.
In addition to Turkel, the committee is made up of Prof. Shabtai Rosenne, Maj.- Gen. (res.) Amos Horev, former Foreign Ministry director-general Reuven Merchav and Prof. Miguel Deutch. They have been joined by two foreign observers: David Trimble from Northern Ireland, and retired Canadian Brig.-Gen. Ken Watkin.
Netanyahu has reportedly been preparing with his staff for a couple of days, partly by taking questions that are expected to come up. Sources in his office said he was taking the testimony �very seriously.�
Defense Minister Ehud Barak will appear before the panel on Tuesday, and Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi on Wednesday.
Netanyahu�s original hopes that the establishment of the Turkel Commission, with its international component, would be sufficient for the international community did not pan out, and at Sunday�s cabinet meeting he formally announced that businessman Joseph Ciechanover would represent Israel before a UN panel that Netanyahu had reluctantly agreed to commit to. That panel will begin its work on Tuesday in New York.