Gaza flotilla
Israeli naval vessels approach the port of Ashdod on Monday May 31, 2010. Israeli marines stormed a Turkish aid ship bound for Gaza on Monday and nine pro-Palestinian activists were killed. Photo by Reuters
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It's not just a matter of the latest routine condemnation by the United Nations or the Arab world, or an issue of whether this week's flotilla debacle will lead to an easing of the Gaza blockade, which is in any event ineffective. The crux of the problem today is the serious erosion of Israel's status among our friends and well-wishers. It's hard to explain to them how a legitimate military deployment to block the provocation of an extremist Turkish organization turns into a bloodbath in which Israel is portrayed as a pirate state.

The episode of the Mavi Marmara is the latest in a series of events that are intensifying Israel's isolation, from the Goldstone report to the denial of entry to Prof. Noam Chomsky and the deportation of the Spanish clown. In its shadow, the sweeping anti-Israel decision at the UN's recent nuclear nonproliferation conference - which dovetails with the relentless suspicion U.S. President Barack Obama harbors for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu - has been all but forgotten. It is not by chance that Mossad chief Meir Dagan warned this week that Israel is gradually being transformed from an asset to a burden for the Americans.

Senior members of the political, diplomatic and military establishments, along with their advisers and spokespersons, are now waging a battle of containment: minimum admission of mistakes, blaming the adversary and total denial that the maritime operation was a failure. The spin is working. It interlocks with feelings of self-righteousness, victimhood and the notion that "the whole world is against us," which prevails among the public and finds expression in the media as well (to the point where one journalist published a column calling on critical media people "to shut up and salute" ).

The Israel Defense Forces received an order to stop the flotilla, but to do so in a way that would avert an international crisis. That wasn't how it played out. At the very bottom of the chain of failures in decision-making and planning, it was the Naval Commandos who paid the price, as they rappelled down ropes into the heart of a pugnacious and violent mob.

What the international community interpreted as unnecessary use of force was assailed in Israel for the opposite reasons: Why did the commandos find themselves in a numerically inferior position, without proper equipment to overcome an offensive of clubs, knives and axes?

An analysis of the hitches must first filter out a lot of background noise. It's typically Israeli to complain a minute after the event: "Those idiots, why didn't they do things differently?" Naval experts say it is impossible to stop a ship like the Mavi Marmara while it is in motion without risking the death of its 600 passengers by drowning - which would be an overwhelming humanitarian and diplomatic disaster. Drilling a hole in a moving ship is dangerous, as it's impossible to know the vessel's level of maintenance and the extent to which its different sections are sealed. Ramming the ship with a missile boat might also sink it, but a missile boat positioned in the path of the ship might itself be sunk.

The "political echelon" ruled out the possibility of sabotaging the ships in a Turkish port, because of potential diplomatic entanglements. A more practical idea - a relatively simple sabotage during the stopover in Cyprus - was also rejected, for reasons unknown. In 1988, that method was successfully implemented when Naval Commandos sank the PLO ship Al Awda (The Return ) in Cyprus before it set sail for Israel.

The "political echelon" in this case consists of Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak. The members of the ministerial "forum of seven" had a two-hour briefing last week and unanimously approved the operational plan. The security cabinet was left out of the game. It would appear that from the moment the decision was made to stop the flotilla by force, the forum and the General Staff saw things eye to eye.

Netanyahu and Barak, who both served in the ultra-elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit, retain a fondness for special ops. After all, the rope descent made such a heroic impression during the capture of the Palestinian freighter Karine A in 2002 and the Iranian arms ship Francop last November.

Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi told the ministerial septet that there might be fatalities in the event of violence involving gunfire. However, the army did not view the use of arms as a possible method of operation, except in an extreme case. Captain R., the officer who was thrown off the ship's deck, and the other commandos who were interviewed - all of them articulate and persuasive - admitted that they had been readied primarily for a confrontation with "peace activists" that was liable to deteriorate into a punching match. Their comments are damaging to the commander of the navy, Rear Admiral Eliezer Marom, because they attest to the force's inappropriate preparations.

Jihad ties

The prior assessments were based partially on a superficial collection of intelligence about the adversary, deriving mainly from the media. The description of peace activists who were hostile to Israel but not dangerous was accurate in regard to the passengers on five ships, but not in regard to those on the sixth - the Mavi Marmara. IHH, the Turkish organization that acquired the Marmara and approved the passenger list, evidently prepared for the event like a military operation. The IDF says that among the Marmara's passengers was a hard core of dozens of thugs equipped with so-called "cold weapons"; they were looking for a violent clash.

The IHH's extremist background was known before the flotilla set sail. The Washington Institute for Near East Policy reports that the organization was registered as a charitable association in Istanbul in 1995. A French intelligence report stated that its leaders recruit people for Jihad actions and send them into war zones. A CIA report published after the 9/11 attacks found that the Turkish association was in contact with Iran and with groups in Algeria. In 1997, official documents from Turkey were presented in a French court; according to these, members of the organization purchased weapons and were sent to combat zones in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Chechnya.

All of this is public information.

In live footage from the ships on the way to Gaza, broadcast by Al Jazeera, participants in the flotilla sang inflammatory songs calling for a massacre of Jews. Sheikh Ra'ad Salah, from the Islamic Movement in Israel, delivered fiery harangues. One broadcast showed a Turkish activist brandishing an Arab dagger. The IDF did not translate those images into intelligence insights about the nature of the adversary.

The defective assessment influenced the method of operation, which was tried out in a lengthy simulation exercise that did not match the true possible method of operation. The fighters emphasized that during the preparations they were constantly told to display restraint and avoid unnecessary killing. Also on board were women, Turkish members of parliament, Israeli MK Hanin Zuabi (Balad ) and even an infant. Vice Admiral Marom told the fighters that there was no intention to use live fire, but that in case of mortal danger they were authorized to shoot to kill.

The takeover plan consisted of a combination of arrival by helicopters ("Noisy Wave" ) and by patrol boats ("Quiet Wave" ). The first helicopter dropped only four of more than 30 fighters by rope before it had to break contact, because the Turks tied the rope to the ship. The four commandos remained alone in the face of dozens of furious Turks. A few more minutes passed before another 10 fighters were dropped onto the deck. The fighters in the boats were also delayed, because they encountered serious resistance while climbing up the ladders.

Within seconds, the picture changed from a takeover operation to a rescue mission to extricate the four besieged soldiers. The commandos were badly beaten and stabbed, pistols were snatched and an attempt was made to capture soldiers. The color of the commandos' uniforms makes it possible to distinguish them clearly from the Turks in the films taken by the drone. Personnel in the war rooms watched appalled as 30 "whites" surrounded one "black."

The commandos entered this combat arena carrying paintball rifles and personal pistols stored in their protective vests. The paintball rifles proved irrelevant. Having no other choice, the soldiers fired selectively with their pistols at the most dangerous of the thugs. There was a consensus in similar IDF units this week: If it had been us under those circumstances, the soldiers said, the event would have ended with dozens of demonstrators dead.

A senior reserve officer, formerly in the Naval Commandos, says that the images he saw on television "are not shameful. From my point of view, they are a certificate of honor. I see restraint, readiness to risk life in order not to hurt civilians. After all that, there is no need to be justify ourselves when it comes to the nine who were killed. And I say this as the most leftist of the leftists."

It's surprising that officers with experience in violent events (though less extreme ) during the Gaza disengagement - such as the roof episode in Kfar Darom - were not invited to the preparatory deliberations. As things look now, no diversionary or deceptive measures were taken, nor were negotiations utilized as a tool in the confrontation. The army has for years disdained the development of effective means to disperse demonstrations, a lacuna for which it has been reprimanded by the state comptroller.

The Naval Commandos know they were not prepared properly, and are frustrated over this. "I don't know what we were thinking," one commando said. "We went in with toy rifles."

Blocking questions

So far, Barak, Ashkenazi and Marom have not come forward to explain. It is already clear that the political and military establishments will seek to soften the inquiry. The higher the investigation ascends from the level of the Naval Commandos, the further it will get from transparency and accuracy. The IDF's organizational culture in this realm, with the exception of isolated examples in the air force and in the special units, is not brilliant. Body language in the first press conference on Monday revealed the strained relations between the chief of staff and the defense minister. While Barak read from a written statement, Ashkenazi looked diagonally to the right. Marom looked tired and depressed. All three refused to take questions.

The view in the General Staff is that the defense minister cannot limit himself to mere "academic" interest in this operation. This is Ehud Barak, not Amir Peretz. The government sees the other side of the picture. The army's operational plan failed, while the chief of staff, as usual, failed to take a stand on the issue of principle regarding continuation of the blockade.

The chief of staff is obliged to defend the navy commander after not dismissing him in March 2009 following press reports of Marom's visits to strip clubs - and since then praising him at every opportunity as a superb commander. Ashkenazi explained at the time that there was simply no suitable alternative to Marom in the navy.

Everyone involved has drawn lessons from the Winograd and Goldstone commissions. They will block a possible state commission of inquiry bodily, if need be. President Obama has demanded an Israeli investigation, but without specifying its nature. In the meantime, the senior officials and the Israeli spokespersons are behaving like a criminal lawyer during a client's cross-examination. There must be no admission of guilt or error, because every retreat by so much as a millimeter means a gain for the adversary. In the Goldstone affair, the Americans finally softened their stance in the face of methodical Israeli fudging; no one knows how insistent they will be this time.

On Tuesday, the Egyptians announced they were opening the Rafah crossing point to Palestinians, temporarily lifting the blockade. Cairo, Israel's most important regional ally after the loss of Ankara, realized that if it did not take this step, it would be accused of acting on behalf of Israeli interests.

Furthermore, failure at sea also complicated relations with other moderate Arab states, notably Jordan. The Arabs are searching in vain for leaders of stature in Israel with whom they can cooperate as a counterweight to the Iranian axis. In the eyes of the leaders of the moderate Arab axis, it is precisely Israel that is now being led by a group of provocateurs.

With great effort, it is possible to find one positive angle to the story. This week, too, it turned out that the Palestinian Authority and the residents of the West Bank oppose any escalation in their protests. The "day of rage" called by Fatah on Monday ended quietly, almost without exceptional events. It's possible that there are also senior figures in Hamas who understand that a policy of accommodation with the West achieves better results than firing rockets or dispatching suicide bombers. After all, one flotilla succeeded in stirring an international outcry to end the blockade - a mission in which thousands of Qassam and Katyusha rockets failed.

Big winners

The smile of Sheik Ra'ad Salah in court on Tuesday said it all. The "Al-Aqsa sheikh," who tried in vain to entangle Israel by means of provocations on the Temple Mount, hitched a ride with the IHH flotilla and this time generated a bigger melee than he had dreamed of. The big winners from this week's incident are the leaders of the Turkish organization. Their first declarations this week played up the killing of the civilians aboard the Marmara by the IDF, which many international media outlets described as a massacre. In the weeks to come, IHH will construct the myth of how its brave activists humiliated fighters in the IDF's most hallowed unit. Their brothers in Hezbollah have made huge capital out of less.