How will Israel deal with the next flotilla

Security and Defense: This time, the Navy has been preparing rigorously for the operation.

Mavi Marmara in port 311 (R) (photo credit: Reuters)
Mavi Marmara in port 311 (R)
(photo credit: Reuters)
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.
The 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 Marmara.
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 Box.
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 ships.
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.
The teams 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 Engineering Corps.
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.
IN THE 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 defensive.
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 immediately.
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 time.
There is no guarantee that any of this will make a difference.
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.