The death of a US citizen at the hands of Israeli forces who conducted a lethal raid on a Gaza flotilla creates more questions than answers, John CK Daly writes for ISN Security Watch.
By John CK Daly
Israel’s 31 May assault on six civilian vessels attempting to deliver humanitarian aid to Gaza ignited a firestorm of commentary in the media. Israel dominated initial reports of the incident, by having suppressed the flotilla’s electronic communications prior to boarding their ships and subsequently seizing not only the ships but the cameras, video equipment, computers and cell phones of the passengers, which included a large number of journalists.
The Israeli version of events has persistently unraveled as flotilla members released from Israeli detention have begun to relate their version. Most notably, an hour-long video smuggled from the Mavi Marmaris, the largest ship in the contingent, has been released by a Brazilian-American cinematographer of Korean ancestry, Iara Lee, which depicts events considerably at odds with Israel’s version of the boarding.
There are two incontrovertible elements in the event. First, the flotilla was stopped, according to the Israeli navy, 75 miles west of Gaza. The boarding occurred at Latitude 32.64113 N Longitude 33.56727 E in international waters, well outside Israel’s self-proclaimed 20-mile exclusion zone, where it has blocked ships from entering Gazan waters since December 2008.
The second point is that the Israeli Shayetet 13 Naval Special Forces commandos killed eight Turks during the takeover of the Mavi Marmaris, not nine. The ninth victim was an American teenager, 19-year-old Furkan Dogan. Dogan has usually been described in the media as either a Turk or a dual Turkish-American citizen, but in fact carried only an American passport with a Turkish residency stamp. Furkan’s father, Professor Ahmet Dogan, believes that the press is portraying his son as either a dual national or a Turkish citizen in an effort to “cover up” the reality of his son’s death.
These two facts taken together should impel the US government to add its voice to those of other nations, including its NATO ally Turkey in demanding an international investigation of the incident instead of Israel’s internal inquiry. Such action by the Obama administration has yet to be forthcoming. Instead, by 21 June, 83 US senators had signed onto a letter crafted by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee to President Barack Obama “to affirm our support for our strategic partnership with Israel, and encourage you to continue to do so before international organizations such as the United Nations.” In the House of Representatives, 307 representatives signed a similar letter.
The Dogan dossier
Dogan was born in 1991 in New York City, the youngest of three children. His father Ahmet, now an assistant professor of accounting at Turkey’s Erciyes University in Kayseri, was completing his MBA at Renselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, being sent there by Erciyes University. After his father completed his graduate studies the family returned to Turkey.
Furkan never lost touch with his American heritage – he was bilingual, speaking fluent English and loved American basketball and films. Furkan grew up in a prosperous neighborhood and had recently gotten his driver’s license. Having completed his high school studies with outstanding grades he enrolled in a pre-med program to enter Gazi Osmanpasa University, intending later this summer to return to the US to visit his birthplace.
Professor Dogan told ISN Security Watch during an interview that after his son saw billboards in Kayseri advertising the IHH Gaza flotilla, about a month before it set sail, he found an application form on the internet and then visited the organizer’s offices, where he was told to go home, think about it and discuss his possible participation with his family. Professor Dogan was adamant that his son had no fundamentalist or religious leanings whatsoever, but like many his age, was idealistic and saw his joining the flotilla as a chance to right an injustice, and insisted that the office approve his application. His parents believed that he would not be accepted because there were so many applications and he was not a member of the IHH, but reluctantly agreed to his going after he was accepted. Furkan called them from Antalya but after the flotilla departed had no communications with his family.
Before the flotilla sailed from Antalya its cargo was thoroughly searched by Turkish government officials and its passengers for weapons, advising the organizers that they were likely to encounter Israeli resistance and to head instead for Egypt. The organizers agreed, a moot point at present as the Israeli navy intercepted the ships so far out at sea and continue to retain possession of them.
During the voyage, Furkan’s sunny disposition and willingness to help, including working in the vessel’s canteen, endeared him to the Mavi Marmaris passengers, who came to regard him as the ship’s unofficial mascot.
Professor Dogan and his family followed the live video feed on the internet from the Mavi Marmaris before it was shot down by the Israelis, but did not see his son. After the Mavi Marmara was boarded and nine people were reported killed, Professor Dogan contacted the Turkish prime minister’s office and the US Embassy but received no information about his son. When the lists of detainees, injured and killed were released, Furkan’s name was absent. As such, after hearing that those deported by Israel were being flown to Istanbul Professor Dogan traveled there hoping to see his son. On 3 June, 466 flotilla participants arrived in Istanbul, along with Turkey’s ambassador to Israel, Oguz Celikkol; seven planes were used to deport 527 flotilla participants to both Turkey and Greece.
At Ataturk airport Professor Dogan did not see his son among those deplaning, where he was told that three Americans had been held in Israel and not allowed to board the flights. He asked the US consulate for information but again received no answer, eventually learning that there were four bodies in the Morgue Department of State Institute of Forensic Medicine in Istanbul awaiting identification.
Professor Dogan went to the morgue, where his worst fears were confirmed. Furkan has been shot five times, twice in the head. Dr Haluk Ince, chairman of the council of forensic medicine in Istanbul who conducted the initial post-mortems, told Professor Dogan that he had never before seen injuries like Dogan’s, and that the shots that killed his son had been fired from less than 45 cm away at point-blank range. One of the shots was apparently fired after Dogan was already dead.
Dr Yalcin Buyuk, vice-chairman of the Turkish Council of Forensic Medicine, said that the nine dead men from the flotilla were shot a total of 30 times. Of the other eight dead, medical examiners found that five had been shot in the back or in the back of the head. Dr Ince added that in only one case was there a single bullet wound, to the forehead from a distant shot, while every other victim suffered multiple wounds. British citizen Ismail Patel, who was onboard the Mavi Marmaris, calculated that at the height of the assault Israeli commandos shot one person every minute, leaving besides the nine dead 48 others suffering from gunshot wounds. Two other Americans were wounded during the Israeli attack.
The US Embassy only phoned Dogan’s parents to offer condolences after Professor Dogan told the Turkish media that his son was a US citizen. Six days later the US Embassy again contacted him and said that it was waiting for the coroner’s report before the Department of Justice would decide whether to take action.
“He was just a normal child, but very curious, a normal teenager. He wasn’t interested in politics at all, he wasn’t a fan of any political group and he didn’t talk about politics,” Professor Dogan told ISN Security Watch.
The Israeli assault on an unarmed merchantman in international waters provoked massive anger in Turkey. During a televised speech on 4 June, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan accused Israel of betraying its religion, saying, “You killed 19-year-old Furkan Dogan brutally. Which faith, which holy book can be an excuse for killing him?”
The assault was also harshly criticized by the International Chamber of Shipping, which expressed “deep concern” over the attack, maintaining that merchantmen have a right to safe passage and freedom of navigation in international waters.
More criticism came from the Foreign Press Association about the Israeli government’s “selective” use of videos confiscated from journalists on the ships to justify its deadly raid, demanding that the Israeli military cease using the confiscated material without permission and identify the sources of the video already released.
Returning from deportation on 3 June to Turkey, Swedish historian Mattias Gardell told Swedish public radio: “We were witnesses to premeditated murders.”
Bolstering the charge that the killings were not random, Canadian Kevin Neish was filmed by an Arab TV cameraman before video feeds from the Mavi Marmaris were blocked displaying a booklet with pictures and profiles of all the passengers, which he’d found in the backpack of an Israeli Shayetet 13 Naval Special Forces commando.
Despite the mounting evidence of Israel’s overwhelming use of lethal force, which killed nine people and wounded 48 others, on 3 June US State Department spokesman PJ Crowley told journalists that the FBI was not investigating the attack. “Any time an American is killed overseas, we have the option of evaluating the circumstances, and if we think a crime has been committed, then, working with the host government, we have the option of our own investigation,” he said in a statement.
Law of the jungle
Maritime law, which began to be codified in the early 17th century, is the oldest corpus of international law in the world. To abandon it to justify an armed attack on an unarmed vessel in international waters is to invite the law of the jungle to replace it, where might makes right.
As America prides itself as pre-eminently a nation of laws, Washington must realize the future consequences of ignoring such a blatant violation of international law to be whitewashed by a commission composed of perpetrators supporting the attack. Israel’s government has already announced that its commission will not be able to interview members of the Shayetet 13 Naval Special Forces.
If Israel is sincere about getting to the bottom of what happened on 31 May, it can begin by returning the video equipment, cameras and computers aboard the Mavi Marmaris, as well as returning the flotilla vessels.
Given the visual evidence and testimonies of other Americans aboard the Mavi Marmaris, it would seem that the US government’s fundamental responsibility should extend to supporting Turkey’s and other nations’ calls for an international investigation into Israel’s attack on the Gaza flotilla, to include a complete accounting of the circumstances of the death of American teenager Furkan Dogan, shot five times by Israeli commandos on a civilian ship on the high seas for the crime of holding a camera.
Dr John CK Daly is a non-resident Fellow at John Hopkins Central Asia-Caucasus Institute in Washington, DC.