The first naval commando rappelled down from the Black Hawk helicopter onto the upper deck of the Mavi Marmara at approximately 4:30 a.m. While the rope dangled below, one commando after another landed smack into the middle of a mob of Turkish activists, armed with sticks, knives, bats and slingshots.
The operation was supposed to be simple. The commandos were supposed to board, take control of the bridge and then sail the Mavi Marmara to Ashdod Port, from where the activists would be deported back to Turkey and the humanitarian aid they were carrying – if there was any – would be transferred to the Gaza Strip.
However, nothing went according to plan. Lacking real-time intelligence, the navy was not aware of the arms – some 200 knives and 100 metal poles cut from the ship’s railings – that the ship’s passengers had readied for the fight.
By now, six years later, the rest is history.
When the raid ended, nine Turkish passengers were dead - one more would succumb later -, several navy commandos were wounded, and six years of an unprecedented diplomatic rift between Israel and Turkey – once the best of friends – had erupted.
One of the major criticisms of the deal signed this week between Jerusalem and Ankara is that it could have been reached years earlier. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu apologized to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a famous phone call under the auspices of US President Barack Obama already in 2013. All that was left was to iron out the compensation to the families of the dead and the normalization of ties.
I have been bothered, though, by something else. Was it not possible to have avoided the crisis altogether, or at the very least, to have significantly minimized its scope? You might wonder how that would have been possible. After all, Erdogan had already set a course to clash with Israel after Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip in January 2009.
He walked off a stage with Shimon Peres in Davos shortly after the operation and then canceled annual joint aerial maneuvers with the Israel Air Force. Things were not looking good for Israeli-Turkish ties even before the Mavi Marmara set sail for Gaza.
Had Israel released video footage of the navy raid earlier in the day, though we can’t know for certain, it is possible that the country’s ties with Turkey would not have deteriorated as they did.
In some of the now well-known footage, recorded by thermal cameras placed on aircraft above as well as on nearby navy ships, Mavi Marmara passengers are seen hitting soldiers with bats and then throwing some of them from the deck into the water below.
The problem was that the video was released only at 4 p.m., nearly 12 hours after the initial raid took place. An earlier release would have provided much-needed evidence for the Israeli version of events – that its commandos were brutally attacked, responded in self-defense and, as a result, killed nine of the activists.
Instead, by not releasing the video, Israel left the field wide open for the narrative of IHH, the Turkish NGO that had organized the blockade- breaking flotilla. While videos and photos taken by the ship’s passengers circulated online, Israel remained quiet.
A few hours after the raid, Danny Ayalon, then Israel’s deputy foreign minister, decided he had waited long enough. He was following coverage of the raid from around the world and realized that Israel was losing the battle over the narrative. While the IDF was claiming its commandos had been attacked and acted in self-defense, those statements were practically meaningless in light of the death toll among the so-called Turkish peace activists.
Ayalon decided that a press conference was needed to turn the tide of public diplomacy. He called the Defense Ministry at about 9 a.m. and urged officials there to immediately release the video. Ayalon knew that there was footage and that it was sitting in the IDF’s underground central command center beneath the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv.
Matan Vilna’i, the deputy defense minister at the time, called Ayalon back.
“I’m going to convene a press conference and I need the video,” Ayalon said. Vilna’i told him that it would take time. While the navy had filmed the raid from nearby vessels, the video, he said, was being held up by the censor.
Ayalon finished the call asking Vilna’i to do everything possible to have the video ready for the 11 a.m. press conference he was planning to convene.
By 11 though, there was still no video. Instead, even though almost seven hours had passed since the raid, the navy was still fighting with the IDF Spokesperson whether the video should be released at all.
Senior navy commanders thought the video would damage the reputation of Shayetet 13, the elite naval commando unit, whose soldiers had conducted the raid. There were also arguments within the IDF’s media team regarding whether the video should be released early in the day or held until 8 p.m., the time of the local news shows.
Finally at 4 p.m., the IDF released the video. It clearly showed how the soldiers had been attacked. The problem was that it was too late.
“If you don’t have the video and the photos, then no matter what you say won’t be strong enough,” Ayalon told me this week. “The IHH is getting out its version, is commanding the narrative and we didn’t have anything.”
By the time Israel’s video came out, Ayalon recalled, the international press had moved on and was no longer interested. Any hope of turning the tide on the narrative was lost. All that was left for Israel was to focus on damage control.
The failure to release the flotilla video earlier in the day was not the first time Israel’s public diplomacy apparatuses made the wrong decisions.
This is exactly what happened the morning of July 30, 2006, two weeks into the Second Lebanon War with Hezbollah, when an explosion rocked the southern Lebanese town of Kafr Kana.
Initial reports spoke of dozens of casualties – half of them children – and almost every international news network connected to the live feed Al Jazeera was broadcasting from the rubble. Apparently, Israel had dropped a bomb the night before, but it had malfunctioned and failed to explode. While the IDF claimed that the building’s vicinity was being used as a launch pad for Katyusha rocket fire into Israel, it failed to present proof until over 12 hours later, when it released the video just in time for the local 8 p.m. news.
That day was a turning point in the war. Then-US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice happened to be in Israel and used the bombing to get Israel to suspend all aerial activity over Lebanon for the next 48 hours, a steep price in the middle of a war. In the days after, international support for Israel’s campaign against Hezbollah had almost completely eroded.
It’s possible that had Israel moved faster, support for its war against Hezbollah would have held together, just as it is possible that, had Israel released the Mavi Marmara video earlier it could have avoided a six-year crisis with Turkey.
“It’s difficult to know one way or the other,” Ayalon told me. “Getting the video out earlier would have given us the opportunity to explain what happened. It wouldn’t have changed the Turks’ attitude toward Gaza, but it could have minimized the scope of the crisis.”
The problem is exactly that – we will never know. What we do know is that events like these should not be allowed to repeat themselves.
Israel, for the most part, has learned the lesson. The fact that Operation Protective Edge in 2014 ended without an international commission of inquiry as after previous operations, is in part due to the hard work done to ensure that Israel’s narrative gets out in real time and without delay.
Today, though, as potential conflicts with non-state actors like Hamas and Hezbollah loom on the horizon, Israel needs to keep in mind that these wars do not end on the battlefield.
They continue in the media, the courtroom and around the United Nations Security Council table. Public opinion today means far more than it did a decade ago and lack thereof can end a war way before military objectives are met.
*** I didn’t know Hallel Yaffa Ariel, the 13-year-old girl murdered Thursday in her Kiryat Arba bedroom. What I do know is that she was quite the dancer.
On Wednesday night, Hallel participated in a dance in Jerusalem, an end-of-the-year recital for the dance class she had taken throughout the school year.
I know this because my soon-to be 13-year-old daughter Atara was also on stage that night. She didn’t know Hallel personally and danced in a different group, but they shared the stage and the moment, as two young, vibrant and beautiful teenage girls dancing in front of hundreds of people on a lovely night in Jerusalem with their whole lives ahead of them.
The difference was that Hallel went back home after the show to be stabbed to death the next morning in her bedroom. My daughter also went home after the show, and woke up in the morning to go back to the summer camp she started this week.
Hallel was murdered on Thursday, but it could have been any of the dozens of girls who danced that night together in Jerusalem. This is the reality of daily life in Israel – after 68 years of statehood, people still today move from dance recitals to murder scenes as generations of Jews and Israelis have before them.