Thursday, June 3, 2010

"Madness! Madness!" Thoughts on the Israeli Flotilla Attack

“The activists said they never attacked the soldiers. They thought Israel was welcoming them with commando-shaped piñatas.”

- Jon Stewart

Yesterday at my new 9-5 job (calling employers to verify loan information – I’ll tell you about it later), I overhead this exchange between two of my coworkers:

“What’s going on in Israel?”
“Some ships were bringing food to Gaza, and the Israeli army attacked them and killed like twenty people.”
“Wow, that’s nuts. You know, I really can’t go along with the whole Rambo killing-people thing.”
“Yeah. Especially when they were just trying to drop off food.”

I have a feeling that my coworkers’ characterization of the IDF’s attack on the “Freedom Flotilla” last Monday is fast on its way to being cemented in the public consciousness. Nevertheless, here is my vain attempt to shift the narrative.

(The following summary is based on Matti Friedman’s excellent article in the Associated Press today.)

The Gaza Strip, a 139 square mile sliver of land bordering Israel, Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea, is home to 1.5 million Palestinians, and is controlled by the Islamist militant group Hamas, which has dedicated itself to total warfare against the Jewish state, with its destruction as its chief goal. Due to ongoing rocket attacks against Israel launched from the Gaza Strip, Israel and Egypt have blockaded the Strip, banning all exports and letting through only food and medicine.

On Sunday, a group of 700 activists on six ships nicknamed the “Freedom Flotilla,” organized by the Free Gaza Movement, set sail from Cyprus to bring 10,000 tons of supplies to Gaza.

Say what you will about the blockade, but any nation that let 10,000 tons of supplies be delivered to territory controlled by its archenemies uninspected would redefine “suicidal.” So, quite reasonably, in my mind, the Israeli government warned Free Gaza that the flotilla would not be allowed through the blockade, but offered to pass on humanitarian aid from the ships.

The ships set sail anyway. The Israeli navy sent its ships to intercept, and ordered them to halt. The flotilla moved on anyway. So the Israelis sent their commandos to take over the ships and turn them towards an Israeli port.

Not expecting any resistance – the ships were carrying peace activists, after all – the commandos were armed only with paintball guns and pistols, “in case of emergency.” To their shock, as the commandos jumped onto the deck of the largest ship, the Mavi Marmara, they were attacked by a mob armed with clubs, chairs and knives. One soldier was thrown over the side onto a lower deck and stabbed in the stomach when he landed. Other soldiers jumped into the Mediterranean to escape their attackers. A full twenty minutes after the operation began, the soldiers requested permission to use their firearms, and received it. Two of the “peace activists” were shot dead after they wrested pistols away from the commandos and shot two Israeli soldiers. All in all, nine activists were killed and seven soldiers were wounded.

The surprising part of this story is not that Israel chose to intercept massive cargo ships headed through their blockade into enemy territory. Nor is it surprising that the Israeli soldiers responded with live ammunition when they were attacked. The real question here is: Why did the activists turn to violence so quickly?

They did so for the same reason, I submit, that Israel is now being nearly-universally, unequivocally condemned for the violence that the activists started: In the eyes of Israel’s political opponents, the Jewish state can do no right.

As evidence, I point to an e-mail I received from a pro-Palestinian group called the BRussels Tribunal the day of the attack (Italics mine):


Dead: 19. [sic] Injured: 60.
This is Israel

...For what does Israel fight? Its existence, or the continuance of a regime of collective punishment calculated to destroy the Palestinians? Or are these the same thing?

...From founding until now we have witnessed an unending catalogue of Israeli atrocities. By these countless atrocities, Israel has forfeited any claim to legality — it is moreover a state that refuses to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty or consider giving up its nuclear weapons.

...Here every man and woman has a moral duty: inaction is complicity and a betrayal of humanity. All legal rights are with those who attempt to end this situation by whatever means.

■ We condemn the illegal, immoral and inhuman blockade on Gaza, and all who uphold it
We condemn Israel
■ We condemn Israel’s brutal attack on peace activists in international waters. We declare that 700 brave souls, from 50 nations, represent something real that Israeli propaganda cannot erase
■ We demand an international tribunal to judge all Israeli crimes, past and present. We call on the UN General Assembly to request of the International Court of Justice an advisory opinion on the legality of Israel within the United Nations System given its systematic and gross disrespect of international law and moral authority.

Because the global anti-Zionist movement, like the radical Islamist movement and the Palestinian national movement, has never accepted the legitimacy of the Jewish state, its struggle on behalf of the Palestinian people has taken on a zero-sum quality. Its various tactics – blockade-running, disinvestment, etc. – flow from an initial rejection of Israel’s right to exist, and therefore preclude reconciliation with Israel from the outset. In their eyes, no action Israel takes in self-defense can be legitimate, because Israel itself is illegitimate.

Hence – Israel sends commandos to take over ships carrying 10,000 tons of uninspected cargo headed towards enemy territory? They must be trying to kill us! Grab your knives! Man the ramparts! Israel kills nine people in a mob that was beating their soldiers to a pulp? Massacre! Haul them before the Security Council! No, the International Criminal Court! No, the Nuremberg Courts! Israel tries to defend its actions using videos confiscated from activists aboard the ship? Outrage! Have they no respect for freedom of the press?

Keep screaming, activists. This is what the Israeli people hear:

This attitude, to put it mildly, is not helpful – ESPECIALLY for the 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza held hostage to Hamas’ eternal war against Israel.

The humanitarian crisis in Gaza is very real. The Strip has one of the highest population densities on the planet - 1.5 million people are trapped in 139 square miles. In 2008, the year before the devastating Israel-Hamas war, 80% of Gazans were dependent on outside food aid, the unemployment rate was 40% , and public services had deteriorated so much that 50 million liters of sewage were pouring into the sea every day. Things have only gotten worse since then.

The blockade must be reformed. Travel rights must be restored. Exports must be allowed through. Real reconstruction must take place, with massive help from the outside world. The blockade must morph into an effective arms embargo.

Unfortunately, Israel is unlikely to do this on its own, for the same reason that Israel elected Benjamin Netanyahu, an anti-two-state solution rejectionist, as prime minister, that its top diplomat is a quasi-fascist who publicly expresses his contempt for foreign leaders, that it publicly humiliated Turkey’s ambassador to Jerusalem, that it banned Professor Noam Chomsky from speaking in Palestine, that it has declared its intention to bulldoze thousands of homes and deport thousands of Palestinians from the West Bank, that it has refused to stop building settlements in East Jerusalem even temporarily to restart the peace process.

That reason is: since the Gaza War of 2009, Israel has realized that nothing it can conceivably do will win it the respect of the world. So why should they bother?

How different would things have been if the activists had resisted peacefully! The world – and more importantly, the Israeli people - would have seen men, women and children being bound and carried off the ships one at a time. They would have seen the truly innocent cargo being inspected – wheelchairs, food, medicine, cement. They would have asked, “Why are these people willing to go through all this just to bring attention to Gaza? Why won’t our government let cement through to Gaza? What’s so dangerous about wheelchairs?” It might have been the catalyst Israel needed to start a real debate over how to relax the blockade, rebuild Gaza, and undercut Hamas’ popular support. As a professor interviewed in the documentary Handala says, “Nonviolence exposes the reality of the situation. There are no excuses anymore. There are no justifications anymore.”

Instead, I humbly and regretfully predict, the Israeli people will see the world’s irrational overreaction to their government’s completely rational behavior, correctly conclude that they cannot absolve themselves in the eyes of the world, and retreat further into their bunker.

Now is the time for the leaders of the U.S., Egypt, and Israel to pow-wow and figure out a way to relax the blockade while containing the terrorist threat. I only hope that the Freedom Flotilla has not sabotaged that pow-wow before it even begins.


  1. This is a very valuable perspective in so far as it empathizes with the Israelis without completely ignoring the plight of the Palestinians. It is almost impossible to find a perspective like this these days. So, thank you for posting this.
    Some critiques: I'm not sure that you make enough of the reason why the activists wished to break the blockade. Israel upholds the blockade on the pretext of security. Security is sufficient reason to explain A blockade, but not this blockade. The Israeli government claims to allow 15,000 tons of aid into Gaza each week. The UN claims that this is 1/4 of what is necessary. The blockade as it stands cannot be justified on the basis of security. Security plays a role in the blockade, but the deeper, more sinister purpose behind the blockade is collective punishment. There is simply no way to get around that. You seem to closely associate the blockade with the legitimate security concerns felt by Israelis without much question. In the second half, you talk about how Israel should allow more food, medicine and concrete into Gaza. But, you don't take the next step of soundly condemning Israel for stalling on this for so long.
    Finally, I think that it is very insightful that you point out that these activists actions failed to do anything to sway public opinion in Israel. That is a very interesting point and worth discussing. Indeed, what sort of action would succeed in swaying public opinion in Israel?
    But, I don't think that the activists were primarily seeking to change Israeli public opinion. I think that their target audience was the rest of the world, particularly the US. I think that the activists said to each other, "We won't ever get Israel to change. But, we might be able to convince the US government to step in and force Israel to lighten the blockade."
    If that is the case, they might be on the verge of succeeding.

  2. If one maps the pattern of the last two intifadas onto this one, it's quite simple. Intifada one, palestinians stage an uprising around local leadership (PLO was in Tunisia), and successfully make the Israeli state look like a colonial sham, which led to the Oslo accords. Intifada Two, Sharon understands that the PLO would stage a brutal guerilla style war, attack civilians, and champion armed resistance; by provoking the palestinians by waltzing around al-aqsa, Sharon brought attacks against his own people, and gained international sympathy. Intifada 3 seems to be centered around Gaza, and orbits two central factors, the the ironic empowerment of Hamas and the failure of Israel to practice actual counterinsurgency.

    By limiting goods that come into Gaza, Israel allows Hamas to be the broker for medical supplies and other goods that one cannot get on the 73 item list. As such, Hamas gains political capital through patronage and becomes stronger.

    Since Hamas directs the traffic, so to speak, they intiate contact with the israelis through rockets, which provokes responses that greatly damage the Gazan people at large. By playing both sides of the card, Hamas is able to actually strengthen its grip on Gaza and monopolize the political arena, which only provokes further attacks.

    Israel is using a classical 3rd-gen warfare approach towards gaza and the palestinians: Maneuver, multi-platform warfare, and extreme technological advantage. this is not working, since it plays directly into the hands of Hamas, who capitalize on the asymmetrical "punishment campaigns" that the IDF visits on Gaza. 4th Generation warfare is a battle for two things, the media and the population (same thing really). Israel is failing to recognize this on both counts in terms of the last 2 years in Gaza.

    If Israel really wanted to beat Hamas, they would commit to a counterinsurgency program designed to marginalize Hamas and allow other brokers of goods (such that Hamas does not get the credit). They will not do this for two reasons. First, they do not want to commit a counterinsurgent force, because of a greater risk of casualties due to a localized presence and first-glance spike in violence. Secondly, counterinsurgency involves compromise and the sustainment of a HN [host nation] government. Since Israel will not work with Hamas and will not give up land taken by settlers without an enormous fight, successful COIN efforts in both arenas (WB & GS) are stillborn.

  3. Also, you attribute a lot of weight to the Israeli version of what happened on the boat. If you hear interviews with Al-Jazeera reporters, you get a very different picture. By the way, Israel confiscated all the cameras, film, etc. that had belonged to the activists and reporters on the boats. The few videos and pictures that have been released have no context. I agree with you that the activists should not have used violence. But, according to some of the accounts from the activists, the IDF fired live ammunition at the activists before a single soldier had set foot on the boat. It becomes a he-said she-said sort of situation until we get more info. Again, it is worth pointing out that Israel has quite a bit of info and has not yet been willing to make it public.

  4. Dear Micah,

    Thank you for your reply. I really appreciate you taking the time. (And yes, you were one of the people I really hoped to hear from on this. :))

    First of all, you are correct that I give a lot of weight to the Israeli version of the incident. I hope I’m not doing so blindly. The Israeli version, to me, seems highly credible. I’m no military tactician, but I can’t imagine why the soldiers would first fire live ammunition at the boats (although it’s possible that in the darkness and the confusion, some of the activists believed that to be the case.) I won’t rule out the possibility, though, and I’m sure we will learn more as time passes.

    I’m glad we can agree that a security rationale for A blockade exists. Since I didn’t take the step of “soundly condemning” Israel for the intensity and length of this particular blockade, I’ll do so now: the blockade, as it now stands, is completely immoral, and should have been reformed years ago. But I’m not sure I can go all the way with you and assert that Israel is deliberately inflicting collective punishment on the Palestinians. The simple logistical truth is that the less cargo they let into Gaza, the less cargo they have to inspect, and the easier it is to keep weapons out. In the same way, cement is absolutely necessary to rebuild Gaza, but it could also be used by Hamas to build defense fortifications. That’s not sufficient reason to force Gazans to live in ruins forever, but relaxing the blockade would inevitably carry security risks. Any prime minister who relaxed the blockade would have to explain that to an Israeli population that already feels (wrongly) that they have made too many sacrifices and gotten only rocket attacks in return. And with the outside world so unwilling to see Israel’s side of things (as the reaction to the flotilla incident demonstrates, I feel), there is simply no political “up,” domestically or internationally, to relaxing the blockade. This, I feel, is the reason for the blockade’s extremes. It is not an excuse, but I think it is the right explanation.

    I love the last paragraph in your first comment, and I wish I had included the point in contains in my post. I think your interpretation of the activists’ goals is absolutely spot-on. So my question to you is: is it helpful for the international pro-Palestinian movement to give up completely on reaching the Israeli public? My answer is no. I fear it will only cause Israel to isolate itself further. I think it’s a mistake to assume that the U.S. can force Israel to do anything, even if it weren’t for the default Israel-sympathy in our government, media, religious institutions and culture. I also think the bypass-Israel approach poisons the well in the long-term. After all, it is with Israel that the Arabs must make peace, not the U.S. or the UN.

    But, events may prove me wrong.

    Saracen (Andrew) – I love your analysis, and I think you’re absolutely right. Correct me where I’m wrong, but this is where I see your thoughts going – if Israel were to seriously pursue a 4th-gen COIN strategy, it would have to invade and occupy Gaza, depose Hamas, restore the PA to power, and do its police work for it in the short-term. Am I reading you right, or am I forcing the Iraq model onto Palestine? What would you recommend for Israel to do? Because the U.S. setting up and protecting a government in Iraq is one thing. ISRAEL doing it in PALESTINE is quite another.

  5. Yes; COIN and the installment of the PA also entails moving towards actually Palestinian statehood, which Israel does not want to do before it cements its hold on Jerusalem. Like German recognition of Croatia, it might spark a hard push for statehood in the West Bank. Sadly, the analogy between Apartheid S.A. and Israel is only growing more accurate with time, since Israel refuses to participate in a COIN/Reconciliation process.

    Also, from the sources I have looked at on both sides, I am going to have to agree with Micah on the matter of media; articles written by Mr. Oren and other diplomatic israelis sound like 9/11 conspiracies; data is offered unsorted and we are expected to piece together the conclusion that the activists started shooting each other dead to provide an excuse to strike the IDF with pipes. Even Fox news is running interviews that make the Al-Jazeera account look like the credible one, so it's difficult not to at least partially buy in. Roughly blog I check save JawaReport (which I monitor because it is a popular [extremely] far-right site) coheres with the flotilla's account.

  6. and given continuing penetration and settlement in the West Bank Israel is going to destroy herself by destroying the possibility of a two state solution. Gaza will be Gaza, but Israel has to move dynamically to consolidate a working Palestinian state in the West Bank. The only way to do this is to "kill, capture or convince" insurgents. By insurgents I specifically mean Israeli insurgents; no progress will happen until both parties take responsibility for their extremists, and in some cases kill the ones that will not compromise. Palestine should do the same, but no progress will happen if extremists kill enemy extremists or if one party's moderates kills the other's extremists.