MESS Report / After Monday's ocean bloodbath, Israel must work fast to prevent third intifada
If rumors are confirmed that Muslim leader Raed Salah is among casualties of Israel's raid on a Gaza aid convoy, the country's Arab population could explode.
Some initial reactions to Monday's mid-ocean bloodbath.
1. Assessing the damage: The exact casualty toll during Israel's interception of the aid convoy bound for Gaza is still unclear. Israel has yet to release official and detailed reports, but it is known that several IDF commandos were wounded, two of them seriously. Unofficial reports from outside Israel put the death toll at between 14 and 20, with dozens hurt. The nationalities of the casualties are not known. In the early afternoon rumors were officially put to rest confirming that Raed Salah, head of Israel's Islamic Movement's northern branch, was not among them.
The damage that Israel has caused itself internationally can hardly be exaggerated. A previous crisis with Turkey that erupted earlier this year after Israel humiliated Ankara's ambassador now looks like small change in comparison.
Even before then, relations with Turkey had deteriorated over Israel's Operation Cast Lead in Gaza and the generally anti-Israeli stance taken by Turkey's moderately Islamist government. The new crisis is likely to lead to a total break in ties.
The response from the European Union, whose citizens made up a large portion of the convoy's passenger list, appears to be little softer. Israel will present its case, show footage to prove that activists attacked its commandos with iron bars and knives - but all that will have little effect on the end result. The world will judge the incident as an excessive use of force with no clear justification.
Monday's events will also have consequences for the government's relationship with the Palestinians, and with the country's own Arab minority. Hamas will try to fan the flames to divert the debate away from the trap into which it has led the citizens of blockaded Gaza. It is not unlikely that there will be an escalation on Israel's Gaza border, as well as violent protests in the West Bank.
But the central story here is Israel's Arabs. If Salah is indeed among the casualties, the result could be a wave of riots led by Islamic Movement activists. Targeted provocations by Islamists and left-wing activists will now take on strategic significance. Under certain circumstances, and if both sides fail to take steps to calm the situation, this could even end in a third intifada, or Palestinian uprising. In military terms, this can be considered a "life-altering event."
2. The commandos are not to blame: There is no reason to level accusations at the troops themselves. A severely outnumbered commando lowered at the end of a rope onto the deck of a ship from a helicopter to finds himself attacked with knives has no option but to defend himself from what could be a lynch mob. If - despite all the briefings prior to the operation on the use of proportionate force - he opened fire, it is a fair indication that he had no other course of action.
But this shouldn't eclipse the point that the operation as a whole was a total failure. It failed to meet it declared goals - taking control of the convoy while minimizing the international fallout.
There are several elements that will need investigation:
Preparations for the operation - it seems the IDF had not anticipated the level of resistance it encountered; might it not perhaps have been preferable to go in with a larger force, rather than relying on small teams dropped from helicopters?
The use of intelligence: What did the army know in advance about weapons - clubs, knives or guns - held by the activists? What was the level of visual coverage of the ship during the operation?
In the next few days we will hear Israeli spokespeople bend over backwards to convince us that the navy had no choice, that the other side was to blame. Anyone who attacks a soldier with a knife can hardly be surprised to meet with a violent response - but Israel needs to examine its actions. "Don't fool yourselves," said one experienced army man on Monday morning. "When the spin dies down, we will have to take a deep look at the way the IDF operates. You can be sure that this sort of incident will be handled very differently in the future."
3. The heart of the matter - political decision-making: There will be a need for a detailed investigation into the all the decisions, by political and defense figures at every level, that led to Monday's incident. Starting with the decision by the previous government, under Ehud Olmert, to impose a failed blockade on Gaza (although that administration on one occasion did allow a protest boat through), through to the Netanyahu government's decision to enforce the siege with its raid on the "Freedom Flotilla," and including the involvement of politicians in planning the interception. In view of the long-term consequences, particularly on an international level, it seems there will be no alternative but to appoint an independent committee of inquiry. If in the next few hours we begin to hear conflicting versions of events beyond the official line that the government has so far sold to the media, we will have the best possible indication that politicians understand this.
4. PR failure: Israel knew in advance that it was headed for confrontation, both at sea and in the media. Pictures of armed commandos taking on protesters never play well internationally. The government formed a dual strategy: Jamming broadcast signals from the boats themselves and allowing select pool of local and international journalists, allowed to travel aboard one of the navy's missile boats on condition they did not transmit any footage before returning to shore. Even their cellular phones were confiscated.
The interim result, as of mid-morning Monday: Decisive victory for the Turks. The blackout did not work fully, with the result that bloody images were beamed across the world - no matter that they were only blurry footage from a mobile phone camera.
On the Israeli side, there silence. Israeli writers aboard the navy boat are forbidden by the censor from reporting and as yet we haven't heard a thing from them. At around 10:00 A.M. the army spokesman made a preliminary broadcast. But the electronic media abhor a vacuum: If Israel does not move to fill it, the other side certainly will.