It worked. Now what?

Israel fends off a deluge of activists from the sea and air, but how much of it was hype and how much of it presented a real threat?

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July 14, 2011 22:41
air flotilla

air flotilla. (photo credit: Ronen Zvlun Reuters)

 
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If you were in Israel during the past few weeks, you would have been forgiven had you thought that enemy hordes were at the gates.

On the high seas, a flotilla of pro- Palestinian activists was on its way. The leaders admitted their goal was more to break Israel’s longtime blockade of Hamas and the Gaza Strip than to bring in humanitarian aid. But this only fanned Israeli fears – the last time a Gaza-bound flotilla showed up, in May 2010, its professed goal was solely to bring in supplies, yet in the end, tough Israeli naval commandos were temporarily overpowered by what most accounts show to have been a well-organized and violent welcoming party wielding crowbars and other implements on one of the six vessels. Acting in what the army says was justifiable self defense, the naval commandos killed nine Turkish activists; several commandos were wounded and another thrown overboard. And Israel is still trying to live down the ensuing public relations black eye.

To make matters more interesting, at roughly the same time Israel was gearing up for the latest flotilla, word came that a veritable airlift of Palestinian sympathizers was about to descend on Ben-Gurion Airport. The way the government, the army and the police put it, hundreds and perhaps thousands of activists might arrive within a span of days – and perhaps just hours – aboard commercial flights originating mostly in Europe, but also in the US. Once on the ground, they would proceed to the West Bank for a coordinated display of solidarity with its Palestinian residents.

But what they might do between the aircraft door and the airport exit was anyone’s guess. One reporter quoted an unnamed security figure who said he feared that an activist might even immolate himself before the phalanx of reporters and cameras that was sure to be on hand.

As worrying as a seaborne invasion was, it would consist of ships and boats that would clearly show up on radar. But individual activists – many of them middle-aged and even elderly, coming in aboard regularly scheduled flights and mingling in passport control and the arrivals hall with silver-haired Hadassah ladies and entire families heading for Western Wall bar mitzvas – was another thing entirely.

Enemy hordes at the gates indeed. Except that in the end, neither threat fully materialized: The flotilla, or most of it, was left high and dry in Greece following a feverish burst of diplomatic activity spearheaded by Israel’s Foreign Ministry. And the “flightilla,” as it quickly came to be known, was largely scattered to the winds after the Interior Ministry, invoking the country’s 1952 Entry Law, firmly told airlines it would be their responsibility to turn away known activists at the ticket counter. In addition, large numbers of police reinforcements were brought to Ben-Gurion Airport to serve as a last line of defense, as it were, for those who still made it through.

To borrow some of the metaphors that filled the front pages, Israel sank or shot down the invading forces, its potent torpedoes and guns being aimed true and – for once – well away from the country’s oft-shot feet.



“It’s tremendously rare that Israel does good public relations work,” Ronn Torossian, CEO of 5WPR, a PR firm in the US,” tells The Jerusalem Report. “It rightfully utilized back-door diplomacy… and on this rare occasion it actually worked.”

What went right with the flotilla can clearly be credited to Israel’s diplomatic corps – and much of this credit is apparently due one person: Aryeh Mekel, the country’s top envoy in Greece. Normally a friendly and talkative man, Mekel, a former journalist, refused to speak with The Report in time for this article to go to press. “Things are still going on,” he said by phone from Athens, where the Greek government had just offered to help transfer the aid supplies flotilla leaders said they happened to be bringing to Gaza. “It’s still too sensitive and I don’t want to take a chance speaking about it, even off the record.” The “it” in this case is exactly what brought Greece to share the top of the flotilla-busting marquee with Israel.

Back home in Jerusalem, the ministry spokesman, veteran diplomat Yigal Palmor, wasn’t saying much either save for the usual diplo-palaver that passes for information when the dust has yet to settle.

“We didn’t do anything different this year,” Palmor tells The Report, referring tangentially to the May 2010 flotilla. “We just did more. And the reciprocity on the other side was different. Apparently, the outcome of the last flotilla showed everyone what could happen. This time it was clear that there had to be travel advisories or clear statements by senior officials, including foreign ministers.”

He was referring to the US State Department and the Foreign Ministries of the UK, Germany, Austria, Italy and other countries that warned their nationals they’d face physical and legal risks if they took part.

Some of these countries were following the lead of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who at the end of May, while calling on “all, including the Government of Israel, to act responsibly and with caution to avoid any violent incident,” informed Mediterranean governments that “assistance and goods destined to Gaza should be channeled through legitimate crossings and established channels,” and called on them to “use their influence to discourage such flotillas, which carry the potential to escalate into violent conflict.”

Interestingly, Turkey, seen as having been the main protagonist behind the 2010 flotilla and over the past couple of years perhaps Israel’s most vociferous critic outside the Arab world, also backed off. It is seen to have pressured a key Islamic group said by Israel and others to have close ties with Hamas to withdraw, and apparently prevailed upon the owners of “the Mavi Marmara,” the Turkish ship on which last year’s bloodshed took place and by now the most potent symbol of the avowed Gaza blockade-busters, to keep the vessel at home.

“Turkey has many allies, but some are neighbors that are having their own problems – Syria and Iran, to name just two,” Avi Primor, a 40-year veteran of Israel’s foreign service who is now president of the Israel Council on Foreign Relations (ICFR) and head of the IDC Herzliya Center for European Studies, tells The Report. “And it behooves Ankara not to look for any more problems of its own.” Primor believes that even in Turkey, as in most of Europe, it’s clear that things have changed in the Gaza Strip since May 2010.

“There is a feeling that this flotilla was unnecessary,” he says. “It’s well-known that Israel has made a lot of concessions in easing the blockade, and also that the border with Egypt is now open. A lot of Europeans believed last year that there was a reason for a flotilla, but not now.”

Israel also seems to have gone beyond mere quiet diplomacy, using some heavier-handed tactics as well.

Officials refused to comment on charges that at least two of the vessels set to take part in the flotilla had suddenly been put out of commission due to unexplained engine and propeller damage, which the activists called sabotage.

There was also a video on YouTube that portrayed a gay man identifying himself as “Marc” and saying he wanted to take part in the flotilla but had been turned away due to his sexual orientation, a clear allusion to the hard-line stance toward homosexuals of most Islamist organizations, including Hamas, which runs the Gaza Strip. A few alert viewers soon exposed “Marc” as an actor from Tel Aviv, and there were tantalizing hints – never proved, but never quite disproved, either – that the high-quality video had been backed, if not produced, by the government.

In addition, the IDF was apparently caught red-handed trying to spread disinformation.

On June 28, The Jerusalem Post, for one, cited “army sources” as saying that “new intelligence” showed “participants of the flotilla” were planning to “kill IDF soldiers who board their ships,” and in some cases had already “prepared sacks with sulfur, which they plan to pour on the soldiers as they board the vessels.” The Post quoted one army source as saying: “This is a chemical weapon, and if poured on a soldier it can paralyze him…. If the sulfur is then lit on fire, the soldier will light up like a torch.”

The next morning the Hebrew daily Ma’ariv reported that senior government ministers who would have been privy to such information had heard no such warnings. One called the so-called intelligence nothing but “spin,” perhaps approved personally by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to provide an excuse in case the military was again called in and something went wrong (the source is quoted as using the Hebrew acronym for kisui tachat, or covering one’s ass) and to put even more pressure on the international community to keep the flotilla from setting sail.

One gaffe Israel had to own up to concerned a letter to foreign media outlets issued by the Government Press Office (GPO), which answers directly to the Prime Minister’s Office. The GPO stated flatly that any non-Israeli journalist providing shipboard coverage of the flotilla would, if caught, be arrested, deported and barred from the country for 10 years, like any infiltrator. Within hours, the letter had so infuriated the foreign press and undermined Israel’s image that it was personally rescinded by Netanyahu, who’s usually no slouch when it comes to understanding the media.

“Having sat with countless [Israeli] government and military officials through the years, it seems that PR is simply not something which matters to them,” image expert Torossian says. “They seem to feel [Israel is] doing the right thing, so they don’t need to justify [its] actions to the world. Frankly, it’s absurd.”

Israel found the "flightilla," aimed at the weekend of July 8-10 and even beyond, more difficult to nail. The watch lists the Interior Ministry sent to foreign airlines included names already in intelligence databanks, as well as others gleaned from such everyday locales as social networking sites, where activists openly declared their intention to participate. Most of these people were intercepted upon check-in at foreign airports starting Thursday, July 7, and were denied boarding passes.

Those who had been more circumspect were able to board flights. Some were taken off an Alitalia flight from Rome and an Easyjet flight from Geneva that had been diverted to an older terminal once on the ground in Tel Aviv, although it’s unclear how or why these flights were singled out. But the rest were able to disembark in the main terminal.

Apparently the organizers felt that honesty was the better part of valor, because many who made it to Israel now unabashedly told border control officials who they were and what they had come for. Until now, Palestinian sympathizers heading to the West Bank or Gaza Strip could usually enter Israel by lying about their true destination, but part of the idea behind the flightilla was to take a stand as visibly as possible, letting the chips fall where they may. More than 125 of the activists who were detained were led away either for deportation aboard the same planes they arrived on, or to jails to await deportation hearings.

International aviation regulations say airline captains have the ultimate say in who gets to board their aircraft, and if there’s any indication that designated deportees will not behave according to accepted standards during flight, they will be sent back to their jail cells, possibly to undergo trial and sentencing for illegal entry into the country.

According to activists, several dozen of their number apparently remained quiet and unobtrusive enough throughout the entire arrivals process, making it through the airport exit and to the West Bank.

Aside from the hordes of police and other security personnel brought in, there was little in the way of noise, although a group of Israeli leftists showed up at the airport on Friday afternoon to welcome the activists – at least one with a placard saying “Welcome to Palestine” – and quickly got into shouting and shoving matches with irate and often abusive passersby. Police say there were three arrests.

At the regular Sunday cabinet meeting, when things had begun to settle down, Netanyahu read the following statement: “Last week we stopped the defiant fly-in against the State of Israel. We acted methodically and successfully in a variety of spheres – diplomacy, intelligence, public security, migration control and others, in order to frustrate this provocation. And indeed the provocation was foiled. Of the agent provocateurs who tried to enter the State of Israel, a considerable portion were stopped at their points of origin, some were stopped at Ben-Gurion International Airport, and some, a minority, entered the State of Israel and were detained here.”

But was all this activity really necessary? "The state of Israel cannot remain in a constant state of alert just because a little old lady from Genoa doesn’t like the policy towards the Palestinians,” columnist Eitan Haber of the popular Hebrew daily Yediot Ahronoth complains to The Report. “The mobilization of thousands of personnel at the airport put us in a panic. Now it’s over and everyone’s happy. But every single one of those extra policemen cost the Israel taxpayer hundreds and even thousands of dollars.”

Atop aide to slain prime minister Yitzhak Rabin – Haber was the one who stood before cameras that horrible night in November 1995 and announced to the world that Rabin was dead – Haber worries what the activists have learned from all this.

“A few dozen people yelling. So what? How can they put fear in the hearts of the most powerful country in the Middle East?” he says with clear disgust. “What will happen if, instead of sending a few hundred or a thousand people over one weekend, they send 10 or 15 a day, day after day? Are we going to remain on alert like this just because of that little old lady from Genoa?” Shlomo Avineri, one of Israel’s foremost political scientists and a former diplomat who rose to hold the powerful post of director general of the Foreign Ministry, gives high marks to those who avoided a full blown crisis.

“I don’t know if it’s the Foreign Ministry. I don’t know if it’s the prime minister. But Israel as a country succeeded in defusing the crisis,” he tells The Report. “Once the government decided to act, it acted. The end result is there was no confrontation and especially no violence, and that’s what counts.” Yet Avineri, too, thinks things could have been handled differently.

“The efforts were out of all proportion. The flotilla was presented as a major danger to Israel, which it was not.”

Giora Eiland, a retired major-general and former head of Israel’s National Security Council who now does research at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, believes both the flotilla and the flightilla had the potential to turn into major incidents on par with – or even worse than – the 2010 seaborne fiasco.

“I’ve heard criticism of the way Israel handled the flotilla and the fly-in – things like ‘hysteria,’ ‘[unnecessary] tension and pressure,’” he tells The Report. “The logistics involved were necessary. We had to look at what happened last year, when we waited until the last minute and needed to use the military option. This year we did it with diplomacy, perhaps with secret operations. What’s the alternative?”

Nonetheless, even this top-security expert feels there should have been limits.

“I don’t accept all this business about a ‘bunker mentality.’ We cannot afford to blink,” Eiland explains. “Yet it could be that the prime minister and other officials gave the whole thing too high a profile. Maybe they made too much noise about the perceived dangers and Israel’s preparations. But the way we handled things on the ground was the right way to do it.”

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