Tuesday, June 08, 2010

What Really Happened on Board the Mavi Marmara (Part 1)


AFP / Free Gaza Movement

A war of words has been raging ever since the Israeli raid on the Gaza aid convoy, as the two sides offer conflicting accounts of what really happened. Three people who were on board the Mavi Marmara tell their version of events.

When the Hamburg resident Nader El Sakka, 58, tried to board the Challenger I in the port of Agios Nikolaos on Crete, he was told he had to sign a four-page document pledging that he would not engage in violence and that he possessed no weapons. He also had to provide the name and telephone number of a family member in case of an emergency. If he didn't sign, he was told, he wouldn't be allowed on board the Gaza-bound convoy.

The document was in English, a language that El Sakka -- a businessman who was acting as a delegate from the Palestinian community in Germany -- does not speak well, so he only filled out three pages. He thought he could skip the fourth page. "But that wasn't enough to be allowed on board," he says. "They insisted that I also fill out the fourth one."

El Sakka embarked on board the Challenger I, one of eight boats and freighters headed for Gaza with a load of cement, structural steel, medicine and children's toys. Two days later, off the coast of Cyprus, El Sakka disembarked and went on board the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish passenger ship. The flagship of the small fleet, it had Gaza activists on board from a dozen countries, the majority of whom -- around 400 people -- hailed from Turkey.

Like a Pleasant Cruise

El Sakka describes the atmosphere on board as "euphoric," almost as if "we were on a pleasant cruise," he says. The ship was linked via satellite with the Internet and a number of TV stations and continuously sent out images and interviews to the world. A reporter from the Arab news channel Al-Jazeera filed a report on Sunday afternoon that made headlines a number of days later. A group of Arab activists could be seen chanting: "Remember Khaibar, Khaibar, oh Jews! Muhammad's army is returning!"

This is an intifada battle cry, a fighting slogan that recalls a victorious battle fought by the Prophet Muhammad's army against the Jews. El Sakka, a veteran of many pro-Palestinian demonstrations, knows the words well -- and he disapproves of them. "We avoid such slogans at our rallies," he says. "I didn't personally see this group on the ship. But I recognize the reporter. He was definitely there." The other footage in the report also stems from the Mavi Marmara, he says -- including a woman standing on deck and saying in Arabic: "Right now we face one of two happy endings: either martyrdom or reaching Gaza."

That evening at 6:00 they ate köfte (grilled meatballs) and cucumber salad. Four-and-a-half hours later, Captain Mahmut Tural spotted Israeli ships on his radar. In response to their demand that he change course, he responded: "Negative. Our destination is Gaza." Then he ordered an exercise to prepare the passengers for an emergency.

'I Was Well Prepared'

"But right after the alarm the various groups continued with their speeches and singing," said Norman Paech, a former member of the German parliament, the Bundestag, for the far-left Left Party, who was also on board the ship. "I stayed for a bit on deck and observed it all -- out of anthropological interest." Then he went to bed.

The activists suspected that an attack was imminent. They began to assign watches on deck. One of the men on watch was the Turkish doctor Mahmut Coskun, 40. "They chose well-built doctors for the job, because in a crisis we would have to bring the injured below deck," he recalls. "I'm an emergency doctor with a motorcycle unit. I was well prepared."

He saw men preparing for a showdown by reciting poems and songs, but there were no real extremists on board, he says: "Between 5,000 and 6,000 people had applied for the mission. Radicals were not taken along."

(To be continued)

A deep, dark, secret love affair (Part 2)

Wake-up at 5:30

On December 24, 1965, about five months after Singapore became an independent state, six IDF officers and their families set out on an unknown mission. "Elazari and two other officers dealt with the establishment of the Defense Ministry," Golan relates. "My task, along with three other officers, was to establish the army."

Elazari operated according to a number of basic principles, from which the original Israeli team and those who followed did not deviate. The first was to build up a cadre of local commanders and instructors. The second was that the instructional material would be written by the cadets who would be trained as officers. And the third was that practical training would be conducted by Singaporean instructors.

"We wanted to recruit a group of 40-50 people who had some sort of military experience and would be ready to serve in a career army," Golan explains. "We organized things so that they would appoint one of their number to serve as commander. As head of the group, the cadets chose someone of Indian origin named Kirpa Ram Vij, who would eventually become chief of staff of the Singapore Armed Forces. For three months we gave an intensified officers course."

The first course had an IDF format: wake-up at 5:30 A.M., calisthenics, personal arrangements, parade. Training began at 7:30 A.M. and went until 1 A.M. "After a few days of training a group of cadets showed up and said, `Colonel Golan, the Arabs aren't sitting on our heads here. What do we need this madness for?' I called Elazari and explained the situation. He arrived a few days later with Defense Minister Dr. Goh, who told the cadets, `Do what Colonel Golan tells you to do, otherwise you will do double.'"

Parallel to conducting the course, the Israeli team supervised the establishment of the first military base, based on plans of the Israeli Engineering Corps. Construction of the base was completed in three months.

In under a year, the Israeli team conducted a course for new recruits, a platoon commanders course and an officers course, on the basis of plans that were sent from Israel. All told, about 200 commanders were trained.

Jobless instead of soldiers

Once the staff of commanders was ready, it was possible to start creating the standing army on the basis of conscription. The Israelis prepared to establish two more infantry regiments, according to the IDF model, with each regiment consisting of three companies of riflemen, an auxiliary company and an administrative company - a total of 600 soldiers. Lieutenant Colonel Moshe Shefi, who was an instructor in a company commanders course, was sent as an adviser. "We discovered that there was psychological resistance to conscription in Singapore," he relates. "Of 10 professions, that of soldier was ranked last. In first place was the artist, followed by the philosopher, the teacher and the merchant, and the thief was in ninth place. Soldiering was considered a contemptible profession. In Singapore, conscription was considered a means to overcome unemployment."

The Israelis faced a problem. To evade service, most of the young men of draft age (18-24) who were of Chinese origin furnished proof that they were employed. Some 70 percent of the inductees were unemployed and of Malaysian origin - the opposite of their proportion within the population. Elazari and Golan complained to Lee and Goh, but the prime minister was undeterred. "I want you to recruit the most primitive people in the country, the uneducated and the jobless," he told them. Stunned, the Israelis tried to persuade him to reconsider, but he was adamant: "In the Second World War, I saw the Japanese and the British. All the British soldiers were intelligent and educated. But as soldiers they were worthless. The most primitive Japanese soldier gets an order and executes it, and they were extraordinary soldiers. The fact is that the Japanese army defeated the British army."

Golan says, "Yaakov and I tried to explain to him that it's not a question of education but of motivation. The Japanese soldier was motivated because he was fighting for his emperor, who for him was God. For him, he was ready to sacrifice his life. What motivation did the British soldier have, who fought thousands of kilometers from his home?" The explanations about the spirit of combat and about how to generate motivation persuaded Lee.

Along with the two tracks of compulsory service and career army, Singapore also adopted the IDF's model of reserve service. Every soldier who completed his regular service was obligated to serve another 13 years, until the age of 33. A system to mobilize the reserves was established and the Defense Ministry carried out surprise call-up exercises. Because of its small size and its lack of areas for live-fire training, Singapore had to establish training bases in friendly neighboring countries.

Surprise tanks

The unquiet in Singapore, and above all the fear of an invasion by Malay forces, together with the rapid development of the Singaporean army, generated additional needs. With the creation of the infantry, the Israeli team made an in-depth study of the battles fought by the Japanese in Southeast Asia during World War II and of how they succeeded in invading Malaysia and Singapore. Shefi was given the task of delivering a talk on the subject to Singapore's government.

On the basis of the lessons the Israelis drew from the engagements fought by Japan and Britain, they created a naval force based on sampans. "The boats were made of wood and could carry 10 to 15 soldiers, and they were appropriate for the conditions of the sea and for the jungle rivers," Golan says. "On a stormy sea they can be operated with oars or a motor. We asked the Singaporeans to purchase 20 boats and we set up a small base where infantry companies trained in raids and navigation."

Retired Colonel Asher Dar says, "The second team that arrived in Singapore applied what Yehuda Golan did in the form of combat doctrine. We trained in flanking maneuvers with small boats and in live fire using artillery. When the head of the training department, Yitzhak Hofi, visited Singapore, we carried out a model landing of an infantry brigade that set sail in boats at night at a distance of 12 kilometers with the aid of shore navigation only."

The waiting period in Israel on the eve of the 1967 Six-Day War was a rough time for the Israeli team in Singapore. "We were relieved the Israelis were not defeated or our SAF [Singapore Armed Forces] would have lost confidence" in the Israeli instructors, Lee writes. In January 1968, Singapore decided to create an armored corps. In great secrecy, an agreement was signed for the purchase of 72 AMX-13 light tanks from IDF surplus. It was a bold decision: Malaysia, the country's large neighbor, didn't have tanks.

On Independence Day, August 9, 1969, a major surprise awaited the invited guests, including the defense minister of Malaysia: 30 tanks rolled past the reviewing stand. "It had a dramatic effect," Lee writes. Malaysia had cause for concern. Its defense minister recommended to his guests that they take steps to persuade the Malaysian government that its intentions were not hostile.

In the wake of the Israeli victory in 1967, the veil of secrecy over the ties between the two countries was lifted a bit. The Singapore delegate at the United Nations abstained in a vote on a resolution condemning Israel that was sponsored by the Arab states. Contacts began to establish full diplomatic relations. In October 1968, Lee permitted Israel to establish a trade mission and in May 1969 authorization was given for the establishment of an Israeli embassy in Singapore. The status of the Israeli military mission to Singapore was also strengthened, and the mission heads who followed held brigadier general rank. The first Israeli military delegation laid the foundations for an extensive network of relations between Israel and Singapore.