Spring has returned, along with the news of another protest flotilla heading for Gaza at the end of May. This time the pro-Palestinian organizations plan to send an armada of 20 ships to the besieged territory with about 1,000 protesters on board. The concentrated effort is designed to burden Israel's defenses and undermine the country's capacity to stop the flotilla by force, as Israel did last year with the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara.
It is extremely unfortunate that the arrival of spring is also accompanied by the folly on Israel's part of "feverish preparations" to head off the flotilla, as Amos Harel reported in Haaretz Monday. Government officials and army officers are holding meetings, diplomats are dispatching warnings, Military Intelligence is conducting surveillance of "left-wing organizations" and of activists waging a delegitimization campaign against Israel, while commandos rehearse various "scenarios" to deal with the flotillas.
Military sources are cautioning that things could again turn out like they did last time, when Israeli commandos were confronted with an ambush of cudgels and knives and opened fire in self-defense, killing nine Turkish civilians. We have no other trick to stop the ships, Israel Defense Forces sources say in support of their position.
So here's some free advice for the government and the IDF. Relax. Let them sail to Gaza and don't interfere. Announce that Israel has disengaged from the Gaza Strip and has no interest in returning to control it, but just wants the border to be quiet and doesn't want arms to be smuggled to terrorist organizations. That's it. Nothing else interests Israel, and we say to anyone who wants to demonstrate and protest: "Be our guest."
Opening the gates will neutralize the danger inherent in the new flotilla. In the absence of a confrontation on the high seas, the ships' passengers will disembark on the coast at Gaza and will attract barely ten seconds of media coverage. The Middle East is burning with the flames of revolution, and while the West witnesses history being written before its eyes, no one will pay attention to a few demonstrators cursing Israel and waving signs condemning it. With that it will be over. The ships' passengers will be seen as a nuisance rather than as heroes, and their hosts in Gaza will quickly be fed up with their presence.
This approach is not intuitive. The blood of the flotilla organizers is boiling with their hatred of Israel and their will to undermine its legitimacy. One can understand the motivations of Israeli officials and officers who want to teach them a lesson. But that's superfluous. Nothing is going to convert these "Free Gaza" activists into ardent Zionists, not embracing them or shooting at them. The danger they present lies in the support they mobilize among less involved segments of the public in Turkey and the West and in enlisting them in the fight against Israel. Convincing such people that Israel is an evil, criminal country requires that it be portrayed as such. It's very simple. Like a bull in the ring, Israel, too, reacts instinctively with fury at the sight of the red cape, but then the bull is stabbed to death to the cheers of the crowd.
Like the bull, which will never stop and think before charging again, Israel, too, is insistent on repeating the same mistakes. The lesson learned from the altercation with the last flotilla came down to improved decision-making. So instead of the superficial discussion among the forum of seven senior cabinet ministers that led to the mishap over the Mavi Marmara, now hundreds of bureaucrats and soldiers are preparing for the arrival of the next flotilla. Mounds of paperwork with grow, but if there is no change in policy, the process will ultimately result in a systematic but foolish decision.
It is therefore worth remembering that the blockade of Gaza was designed for one purpose: to prevent the smuggling of heavy weaponry into the Strip. As a result, Israel has mounted major intelligence efforts that have also borne fruit. Someone with the capacity to locate and capture the arms ship Victoria in the middle of the Mediterranean and a Hamas engineer in Ukraine can, and must, also uncover what is hiding on the flotilla ships. If the flotilla organizers are so foolish as to smuggle rockets and bombs in the ships' hulls and are then caught red-handed, Israel would enjoy a huge public relations coup. In the absence, however, of confirmed information on the presence of weaponry on the protest armada, it should be allowed to pass through.
In the spring of 2011, firing at unarmed demonstrators is associated with yesterday's dictators, with Gadhafi and Assad and the president of Yemen. Israel must not become associated with such a band of criminals. No "easing of the blockade" will soften international outrage at the sight of masked soldiers violently taking control of civilian ships. Instead of stopping the flotilla, we must stop the foolishness. There is no other available trick to head off a new international imbroglio.