The first phone call came at about 5:45 a.m. on Friday, May 15. A ship, called
Finch and flying a Malaysian flag, was spotted by Israel Navy radars as it
sailed toward the Gaza Strip from Egypt, very close to the coast.
operations room immediately called navy commander V.-Adm. Eliezer “Chiney” Marom
at home to consult. The ship, which was carrying sewage pipes, was less than 800
meters from Gaza waters. It was sailing close to the coast and moving fast.
Marom ordered nearby Dvora fast patrol boats to fire warning shots in the air
near the Finch.
In the meantime, with just minutes to spare, the IDF
contacted the Egyptian Navy, which began to understand that something was
happening. Marom also spoke with his superior – IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-
Gen. Benny Gantz – and asked for permission to open fire at the ship itself if
it did not stop. Thankfully, with just 300 m. separating it from Gaza, the ship
stopped and turned around.
The story of the Finch went mostly unnoticed
in the press, even though, for the Israel Navy, it was and still is considered a
“flotilla” – the likes of which it stopped on May 31, 2010, resulting in a
botched raid and nine dead Turkish activists on one of the ships, the Mavi
And the navy will likely soon face off against an even larger
flotilla set to be dispatched to Gaza later this month.
While the Finch
was just one ship, it was devious and planned to use the crowded Egyptian waters
as a distraction to break the sea blockade of Gaza by dashing to the coast just
after crossing the border.
For the navy, stopping the Finch was mostly
symbolic, even though there are no assurances that sewage pipes were all it was
really carrying. Had the ship succeeded in reaching Gaza, it would have meant
the effective end of the sea blockade, opening a dangerous Pandora’s
According to the navy’s understanding of international law
pertaining to the sea blockade, the moment one ship is allowed through, the
blockade loses the justification it had previously received, for example, from
the United Nations.
While Gaza’s territorial waters are only within 3
kilometers of the coast, Israel’s blockade is imposed on waters 20 km. from
Gaza. If, however, a ship that is sailing even 150 km. from Gaza declares its
intention to sail there and is asked by the navy to stop but says it will
continue, the navy has the right to intercept it, according to Israel’s
understanding of international maritime law.
The question is also what
happens next. If the Palestinians in the West Bank see that ships can sail to
Gaza even after being inspected by some impartial country or security
organization, they, too, will want international inspectors at IDF checkpoints
in the West Bank. If ships can sail to Gaza, these Palestinians could argue, why
can’t planes land in the West Bank? The West Bank, they will say, should be no
different from Gaza.
That is why, unless there is a major change in
Israeli government policy or the flotilla organizers – which include the radical
Turkish organization IHH and the Free Gaza Movement – the navy will be asked to
stop the ships.
This time around, the navy has been preparing rigorously
for the operation, enlisting all of its Flotilla 13 commandos from the reserves
and running different training models with various scenarios, from passive
resistance – such as sit-downs – to potential gunfights and booby-trapped
In addition to Flotilla 13 – better known as the Shayetet – the
ships will be boarded by members of the Border Police’s Yasam Unit and the
Prisons Service elite Masada Unit, both known for their expertise in crowd
control and the use of non-lethal means to quell violent riots.
will be supported by snipers – whose job will be to neutralize violent
protesters before the commandos board the ships – with dogs from Oketz, the
IDF’s canine unit, and operators from Yahalom, the elite unit from the
Beyond these personnel changes, the two major changes
will be the way the commandos board the ships.
Last year, as seen in the
video footage released after the operation – unfortunately too late – the navy
commandos are seen fast-roping down from helicopters one by one. The objective
this time will be to get as many commandos on the decks of the ships at once
with more non-lethal capabilities than before in order to get control of the
situation as quickly and with as few casualties as possible.
meantime, insiders argue, Israel should be doing more to undermine the
legitimacy of the flotilla. Media briefings should become a daily routine for
the IDF and the Foreign Ministry – not only showing reporters the military
preparations, but also explaining the legal legitimacy of the blockade now, as
opposed to waiting to explain the day after, when Israel may be on the
Comments from senior officials, for example, questioning why
IHH even needs to send a flotilla to Gaza when the infant mortality rate in
Turkey is higher – 23.94 deaths per 1,000 live births – than it is in Gaza –
17.12 deaths per 1,000 live births (stats can be found in the CIA’s official
World Factbook) – should be all over the papers.
Why this is not yet
happening is unclear. It would make sense for the government to begin laying the
groundwork already for the operation, which could end, like it did last year,
with dead passengers – even if some of them were paid mercenaries, as appears to
have been the case aboard the Mavi Marmara
Israel should be doing more
to explain the reason for the sea blockade to begin with, the insiders say, like
repeating the stories behind the Francop
cargo ship in 2009 and the Victoria
several months ago. The Foreign Ministry, for example, could highlight to the
world how Israel’s capture of the Chinese-designed C-802 anti-ship missiles,
made in Iran, is currently an intelligence treasure, helping Western navies
study the missile and learn how to defend against it.
One lesson that has
been learned already is the need to disseminate information to the media
Last year, the morning of the flotilla, it took IDF
Spokesman Brig.-Gen. Avi Benayahu some five hours to release an official
statement, and around 10 hours to release the video showing the commandos
getting ambushed and lynched aboard the Mavi Marmara
This time, the new
IDF spokesman, Brig.-Gen. Yoav “Poli” Mordechai, has decided to set up all the
necessary mechanisms so there will not be any excuses for delays in distributing
the information. The navy will transmit footage live back to Tel Aviv
headquarters, and the Spokesman’s Unit will set up a studio at sea and on the
coast to review and edit footage and then distribute it to the press in real
There is no guarantee that any of this will make a
With Nakba Day just a short time behind us and new
demonstrations expected as the Palestinians’ planned declaration of statehood in
September looms in the horizon, Israel will have to tread carefully – on the one
hand, to prevent violations of its sovereignty, but on the other hand, not to
fall into the diplomatic and military traps being set for it.