Although many of the details of the violent clash that took place on the morning of May 31, 2010 on board the Mavi Marmara remain in dispute, there is no doubt that it was an affair of profound and far-reaching consequence—and not only for the parties involved. Most of the committees formed to probe the incident have had their say,1 yet all seemed to lack either the ability or the intention to situate it in its broader context, and to suggest its global ramifications. While investigations of Israel’s decision-making process before—and the Israeli military’s conduct during—the operation are essential, as is the strategic discussion of the situation in the Gaza Strip and the future of Israel-Turkey relations, it is no less crucial to consider what lessons may be learned regarding the objectives and influence of some of the leading players in today’s global arena: the international non-governmental organizations (INGOs).
Indeed, the very next day, alongside announcements of the death toll and the footage of the Mavi Marmara being towed to shore, the media were already reporting extensively on the identity and activities of the organization behind the “Freedom Flotilla”: the Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH).2 Established in Turkey in 1992, the IHH is a non-governmental organization that purports to offer aid to Muslims around the world. Behind its humanitarian façade, however, lurks an activism of a very different kind. Evidence gathered by security services and research institutes in Turkey, Europe, and the United States points to the IHH’s elaborate connections with al-Qaida and Hamas, as well as the assistance it has provided to Islamic militias in Afghanistan, Chechnya, and Bosnia.3 Clearly, the violent provocation on the deck of the Turkish ship was just the tip of the iceberg.
It is easy to dismiss the IHH as merely one bad apple, but the truth is slightly more complex. The world of INGOs is an exceedingly intricate constellation that operates in different ways and serves a variety of goals. Some organizations act out of a sincere commitment to universal human rights and the future of humanity, while some seek to protect groups or sectors suffering from discrimination and oppression. Others, however, are motivated by an antagonistic ideological agenda, and align themselves with a particular side in various political, social, or economic power struggles. The positions and methods that characterize many of these organizations suggest that the Gaza flotilla may well herald a significant escalation in their activities—and not just against Israel. We would therefore be wise to undertake a careful examination of the normative status and legitimacy of INGOs, whether as independent entities or as part of the general matrix of “global civil society.” The findings, as we shall see, leave much room for concern.
Har’el Ben-Ari is a lecturer on international law at Bar-Ilan University.