Editor's Notes: Sailing into history

Israel simply cannot afford to continually underestimate the malevolent savvy of enemies like those behind the ‘Freedom Flotilla.'

mavi marmara passengers 311 (photo credit: IDF Spokesperson)
mavi marmara passengers 311
(photo credit: IDF Spokesperson)
To more and more people, in more and more places worldwide, it all seems so obvious.
Obviously, Israel’s blockade on Gaza is foul and illegitimate. Israel is capriciously, viciously making innocent people suffer.
Obviously, by extension, a humanitarian aid mission, bringing vital supplies to that beleaguered Gazan populace, is worthy of support, admiration and protection.
Obviously, too, any Israeli attempt to intercept such a heroic voyage is fundamentally illegal, the more so if it takes place in international waters, and is to be condemned. Equally, it falls upon the gutsy voyagers themselves, though they are so peaceably minded as to have ensured with great fanfare that even their cutlery is made of plastic, to resist any such interception as best they can.
Obviously, however, if violence does erupt aboard their boats, it is the responsibility of the Israeli aggressors who, never forget, initiated the interception. And if there is not merely violence, but death, the Israeli crime is all the greater. After all, if soldiers are facing off against helpless peace activists, how can the blame and the fault be directed at anyone but the Israelis?
So obvious. So widely accepted, with such appalling consequences. And so dishonest, so distorted, so false. The latest installment of the big lie, in fact. A lie that Israel is laboring, with ever less international support, to puncture.
NO, ISRAEL’S blockade on Gaza is not foul, illegitimate or capricious. Show Israel another means of safeguarding its same vital self-defense needs, and doubtless it would be considered. But when Gaza has a leadership that is insistently committed to the destruction of Israel, when that leadership has spent years raining missiles down upon the heads of Israel’s civilians even after the last (but one) Israeli soldier has long since left Gaza and the last Israeli settler too, and when that leadership is exploiting every crack it can find in Israel’s defenses to smuggle in more weaponry, simple survival dictates that Israel needs to stop the flow.
The interception on the open seas was not illegal. As the state explained in its defense against petitions to that effect to the High Court of Justice, Israel is in a state of armed conflict with Hamas-run Gaza and regards itself as entitled under the laws of armed conflict to enforce its blockade. The flotilla had made plain its intention to break that blockade, and had rejected repeated non-forceful efforts to achieve its compliance.
Many of those aboard the six ships that Israel intercepted out at sea before dawn on Monday doubtless genuinely believed that theirs was a vital, constructive initiative. There are easier ways to get supplies into Gaza – the easiest way of all, of course, would be for them to encourage Hamas to renounce violence, and thus enable Israel to open the borders. But even their arduous journey could have ended to everyone’s ostensible satisfaction had they permitted Israel, as it had repeatedly suggested, to bring the ships into Ashdod Port, there to search the cargo for dangerous content and, after the necessary checks, to facilitate the transfer of legitimate supplies overland to Gaza.
In the case of five of the six ships, indeed, there was no opposition when the naval commandos came aboard. But along with any true “peace activists” or “human rights activists” on the sixth, the Mavi Marmara, there were at least several dozen people for whom such respectable designations plainly do not apply. The IDF now says it believes that these “activists” were hired thugs, mercenaries who had been recruited in Turkey specifically to battle the commandos and who were subsequently found to have been traveling without ID papers and with envelopes of cash.
When Israeli commandos rappelled down the ropes from their helicopter overhead, brandishing paintball guns and anticipating being, perhaps, sworn at and spat upon, these “activists,” as the IDF’s footage shows, grabbed them and pummeled them with clubs and iron bars, producing knives and petrol bombs. They threw one commando over the side. According to the IDF, they also fired metal balls at the commandos from slingshots and, in one case, seized a commando’s personal pistol and pointed it at his head. To judge by the partial soundtrack of the raid released by the IDF Spokesman’s Office in midweek, they opened live fire on the commandos, too.
Yes, Israel initiated the incident. But no, Israel did not initiate the violence. The soldiers themselves have testified that they believed with good reason that their lives were in danger. And while some of what happened as the confrontation unfolded is still not known as of this writing, the film of the opening moments leaves no doubt as to how it began.
IN TWO articles earlier this week, I focused on both the operational and the public diplomacy failures of the flotilla intercept. Operationally, the IDF evidently acted on the basis of flawed intelligence – a lacuna that remains hard to fathom. It knew full well that on board the Mavi Marmara were avowed Hamas supporters, activists of the IHH, an Islamic charity that Defense Minister Ehud Barak branded as a supporter of terrorism. The Al-Jazeera reporter on board had reported the night before that the activists were preparing “a surprise” for the Israeli forces. There had been broadcast talk of “battle” and “martyrdom.” Why, then, would the IDF not have expected heavy violence? Why then would it not have prepared a more effective intercepting party, and thus been better able to take control of the vessel with less loss of life?
Those questions have yet to be answered adequately. One can only hope that hubris is not at play here – the kind of hubris that leads one to misjudge one’s enemies. The kind of hubris born of interceptions of other ships and shipments to Gaza in recent years that were carried out successfully and quietly. The kind of hubris that led those said to have been responsible for the assassination of Hamas murderer and missile importer Mahmoud Mabhouh in January to underrate the detective capabilities of the Dubai police force.
Other operational critiques are less well-founded. The notion that Israel should have disabled the vessels at their port of departure may sound enticing, provided such an operation had succeeded without trace, but the prospect of Israeli frogmen being apprehended at a harbor in Turkey was a nightmare scenario sensibly avoided. Similarly, the idea that Israel could have disabled the flotilla at sea by throwing chains or ropes around the propellers may sound fine in theory, too, but what if the sabotage had led to the sinking of the ships? As for sending out vessels to force the flotilla to change course, here, too, the practical considerations were anything but straightforward.
When it comes to the issue of public diplomacy, some of the officials within the various competing hierarchies are now privately acknowledging how detrimental it was to have withheld for hours on Monday the IDF Spokesman’s footage of the commandos being battered to within inches of their lives. The delay was far longer than the necessary editing required. These were precious hours when Israel’s assertions that its highly trained soldiers had been overpowered by “peace activists” were being widely ridiculed, and the vicious anti-Israeli narrative was being circulated and concretized.
It was reasonable to worry about the impact of the footage on soldiers’ morale, though that concern should have been swiftly dismissed given the wider need to substantiate Israel’s account of events. It was not reasonable to put the film aside because there was still an operation to complete, or to save material for the Israeli evening news.
As in the past, some of those on the government’s PR front line, notably Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s spokesman Mark Regev, worked hard and effectively to articulate the official point of view. How much more resonant their comments would have been in those crucial first hours if that nauseating footage of soldiers being bludgeoned had been on the world’s TV screens as they spoke.
Belatedly, as ever, Israel released the critical footage. Belatedly, as ever, Israel remembered to reach out to Diaspora leaders.
Israel has for years neglected international public diplomacy because domestic political pressures are so relentless, because it refuses to internalize that others don’t automatically accept that its actions are moral, because it struggles to acknowledge the very importance of such outreach.
Unfortunately, what seems common to the atypical operational and the routine PR failures in this case is that hubris again – an arrogance that also stems from the utterly unjustifiable sense that our enemies need not be taken too seriously.
THE “FREEDOM Flotilla” was an assault on Israel of fiendish malevolence. It tugged at the heartstrings of good-natured, under-informed people everywhere. For who could oppose bringing wheelchairs and baby clothes to the ordinary people of Gaza?
It set off from Turkey, a country widely perceived in the West as a reasonable, fair-minded nation, even as it moves ever deeper into the Iranian-Syrian embrace.
It carried activists and politicians and aid workers and journalists from a diverse range of countries and backgrounds, many of whom doubtless truly abhor violence and would have abhorred the notion of violence being committed in their cause. But along with them, camouflaged by them, on the Mavi Marmara, was a core of violent activists with a vicious agenda.
In part because Israel didn’t manage to force them to do so, very fewpeople around the world this week penetrated that camouflage. Very fewpeople drew a distinction between the peaceably minded and theviolently intentioned, between the five ships that did not oppose thecommandos, and the one that did.
But then Israel underestimated the pernicious savvy of those behindthis latest challenge. And that constitutes indefensible conceit onIsrael’s part, since this was and emphatically still is a challenge toIsrael’s capacity to defend itself, to its international legitimacy,and thus to its very survival.
We need to do better. We can do better. We have highly intelligentpolitical and military leaders. We are blessed with expertise in mostevery other relevant field too. It needs to be utilized moreeffectively, with wider consultation and deliberation, betterdecision-making processes, more effective execution.
Other ships are on their way. More of the unexpected, as well.
Every time Israel is outsmarted and outmaneuvered – whether on thebattlefield itself, or in the public diplomacy arena, or, as in thiscase, both – it loses a little more international support. It becomesmore vulnerable to the divestors and the boycotters. It finds itselfwith fewer nations, fewer individuals even within the Jewish Diaspora,indeed fewer voices within Israel itself, willing and able to defy thetidal wave of prevailing wisdom and robustly champion its cause.
The history of Israel’s struggle against Islamic fundamentalism – asexemplified by Hamas, Hizbullah and Iran, with the “Freedom Flotilla”as its latest episode – is not generally being written from an Israelivantage point these days. And history, they say, is written by thevictors.