Analysis: The flotilla fiasco

Why did IDF underestimate terrorists?

Gaza Boat 311 (photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Gaza Boat 311
(photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Obviously, many of those in the “Freedom Flotilla” were not engaged in a humanitarian mission. Had that been their prime motivation, they would have accepted Israel’s offer to escort them to Ashdod Port and arrange for the delivery of their supplies to Gaza, after security checks, over land. They also would have agreed without hesitation to convey a package from the family of the Israeli soldier held hostage by Hamas for almost four years in Gaza, Gilad Schalit.
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Obviously, too, many of those who sailed toward Gaza were not “peace activists.” While those aboard five of the vessels in the flotilla did not violently oppose the IDF soldiers who came to intercept them, the video footage released by the IDF in the course of Monday confirmed earlier official descriptions by Israel of soldiers being premeditatedly and ruthlessly attacked as they tried to board the largest of the vessels, the Mavi Marmara.
Inexplicably, only a small contingent of naval commandos was dispatched to take control of a ship carrying hundreds of activists. And the commandos came on board carrying paintball guns, apparently under the misconception that the takeover of the Mavi Marmara would be, if not a game, then certainly not a confrontation with an enemy.
The IDF’s intelligence was clearly deeply flawed. As the footage showed, the outnumbered, under-equipped and incorrectly prepared commandos found themselves not grappling with unruly peace activists or demonstrators, to whom they had been ordered to show “restraint,” but being viciously attacked before they had barely set foot on deck. The clips showed clusters of people swarming around each of the commandos, and beating them over and over with clubs and bars in scenes sickeningly reminiscent of the lynching of IDF reservists in the Ramallah police station 10 years ago.
There was footage of one of the “activists” stabbing a soldier, of a petrol bomb being thrown at the troops, a stun grenade. And the troops themselves reported being sprayed with tear gas, attacked with iron bars, knives and sticks, and of efforts, reportedly successful in at least one case, to grab the pistols some were also carrying. There were reports of gunfire directed at the troops, and of soldiers jumping into the sea to escape attack.
Soldiers were fighting for their lives, said the IDF spokesman, Avi Benayahu (in Hebrew). “It was a lynch. It was an ambush.”
The navy chief, Eliezer Marom, told an early afternoon press conference that the resulting toll of the dead and injured could have been “much worse,” that the confrontation could have ended even more unhappily.
But it also could have ended a great deal better. At this writing, Israel is facing a battle to maintain diplomatic relations with the flotilla-sponsoring Turks, condemnation from much of the Arab world, milder expressions of concern and criticism from Western nations, a concerted diplomatic campaign against it at the UN, and exacerbated fears of internal and regional violence.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak noted that the Mavi Marmara was under the control of the Turkish Humanitarian Relief Foundation (the IHH), which he described as “a violent, extremist organization that supports terrorism.” Both he and Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon stated with good reason that the entire “Freedom Flotilla” had been a deliberate “provocation.”
In such circumstances, facing such hostility, it is hard to fathom why the IDF so underestimated the challenge its soldiers would face, and thus erred so strikingly over both its choice of how to thwart the flotilla, and over the number of soldiers, and the equipment, it sent into the battle at sea.
That Israel would lose the “media war” – against what were largely depicted internationally as well-intentioned human rights activists trying to defy the Israeli blockade by bringing supplies to Gaza – was a given. Successive governments refuse to take the “second battlefield” seriously – criminally ignoring the imperative to allocate the appropriate resources so that Israel is equipped to effectively articulate its various challenges ahead of time, and in real time, in international, diplomatic and legal forums.
Israel is being further overwhelmed day by day in the newer world ofsocial media: Those aboard the flotilla, and their supportersworldwide, are proving to be expert exponents of Twitter and otherinstantaneous social media channels (as my colleague Amir Mizrochdetails in an op-ed elsewhere in these pages). Official Israel, bycontrast, could barely manage to depart from Hebrew long enough tomanage a statement and an answer in English at its major pressconferences during Monday.
Israel was also further hampered by the absence of its prime ministeroverseas. When Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was finally heardlater Monday, speaking to the press with Canada’s Prime MinisterStephen Harper alongside him, his powerful descriptions of the way IDFsoldiers were confronted on the Mavi Marmara – “theywere mobbed, clubbed, beaten and stabbed,” he said – showed howeffective a carefully articulated narrative can be.
But so much for the arenas in which Israel is routinely inept. What wasso worrying about Monday’s performance was the military misjudgment andmisassessment – and the potential impact on Israel’s deterrentcapability of the failure to efficiently overwhelm the forces arrayedagainst it on what amounted to an enemy vessel.
Israel is concerned with eminently good reason about the smuggling ofweaponry into Hamas-controlled Gaza. It may have felt it had no choicebut to intercept a flotilla carrying it knew not what to the Hamasterror state. Why did it not anticipate that the activists andsupporters of “a violent, extremist organization that supportsterrorism” would act precisely according to type?