The Israeli military’s boarding of the Gaza-bound aid ship Mavi Marmara on May 31, 2010, resulting in the deaths of several Turkish citizens, sent shockwaves around the world. The relationship between the two countries had been tense from 2009, with Israel’s incursion into the Gaza Strip and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s decision to walk out of a Davos panel after an argument with Israeli president Shimon Peres. Yet nobody expected a crisis as severe as the one that ensued. After all, only a few years before, Israeli–Turkish relations had been regarded by both sides as a strategic partnership.
Looking back, questions still linger as to what really happened four years ago today. Was it a premeditated strategy to teach Turkey a lesson, or did events just spiral out of control? A new book has now turned the spotlight onto an unusual suspect in the ongoing saga. Oğuz Çelikkol, Turkey’s ambassador to Tel Aviv during the Mavi Marmara incident, recently released a book, From One Minute to Mavi Marmara, a reference to the Davos incident and the Freedom Flotilla raid that, over a one-year period, seriously impacted Turkey’s relations with Israel.
It his book, Çelikkol accuses the Egyptian government, then headed by Hosni Mubarak, of playing a role in the tragic events of May 31, 2010.
“We did not expect Israel to let the Flotilla go to Gaza, we thought they would intervene but use other methods,” Çelikkol told me in a recent interview, adding that a military intervention on the scale of what took place came as a surprise. As in previous incidents, the organizers of the Flotilla expected Israel to use methods like making the ship’s propeller malfunction or waiting until it reached Israeli territorial waters and then issuing a warning. In addition, the Turkish side had told the Israelis that the ship was expected to turn away from Gaza and sail to an Egyptian port at the last minute. “We advised the Israeli side to be calm, to look at it from a humanitarian perspective, and told them that one way or the other the ship would be diverted to Egypt,” Çelikkol writes.
“I’ve been wondering about whether the Israeli side possessed incorrect information about the possible presence of weapons on the ship, or about the fact that there could have been armed resistance to their intervention,” said Çelikkol. What led him to this suspicion was an incident that took place during the evacuation of the ship’s passengers and crew to Turkey. Çelikkol received instructions from Ankara that all Turkish and foreign nationals who were on the Mavi Marmara should be flown to Turkey on planes send to Israel by the Turkish government. During the evacuation, an Egyptian on board one of the planes that was preparing to fly to Turkey decided to deplane at the last minute. When the Turkish Embassy inquired about the incident, they were told that the Egyptian got off the plane of his own will and that he was later picked up by officials from Egypt’s embassy in Israel.
“We later heard rumors that this person was a member of Egyptian intelligence,” said Çelikkol, who speculated that this suspected Egyptian intelligence officer had given the Israelis misleading information about the ship. “We know that Israeli soldiers searched the ship for weapons and were astonished not to find any,” said the former ambassador.
The Egyptian government of the day had motive to weaken relations between Israel and Turkey, Çelikkol argues in his book: “It could be thought that the Mubarak regime, which wanted to maintain its claim to be the key country in the eyes of United States for the security of Israel, would not mind a break-up in Turkish–Israeli relations; it could have even wish to encourage a physical conflict.”
All views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Majalla magazine.