The term "flotilla" is understood in Israel as a declaration of war. This is the case with respect to the latest Gaza-bound flotilla, just as it was with the one that set off from Turkey in May 2010. Furthermore, due to unstable relations with Turkey, Israel is still feeling the repercussions of its deadly raid on that maritime convoy.
The latest flotilla, which has already begun heading toward the Gaza Strip and is scheduled to reach its shores Thursday, will apparently be far larger than the previous one. It will include about a dozen ships holding some 500 activists, along with food and medicine that is considered to be humanitarian aid for Gazans.
At first glance, there does not appear to be a practical reason to send the aid, since in the wake of the 2010 flotilla, Israel was compelled to lift many restrictions it had put in place as part of its brutal blockade, and Egypt has decided to open the Rafah crossing to civilians. Moreover, Israel has even offered to transfer the aid shipment to Gaza, as long as the ships don't dock there.
At best, the flotilla's contribution to lifting the blockade is symbolic, in that it reminds the world that Israel's closure policy is still partially in effect, and that the population of Gaza remains under occupation. But the Israeli government imputes far greater significance to symbols than it does to wise policy. The government seems to be as frightened of the flotilla as one would think it would be of an attack by an armed naval fleet. It is preparing to keep the ships from reaching the Gaza coast as though it were preparing to fight an enemy seeking to infringe on Israeli sovereignty.
It appears that even though a year has passed since the first flotilla fiasco, Israel is showing that it has learned just one lesson: the military lesson. As though better military preparation or training for specific scenarios are what will save Israel's honor. The country is not willing to give up a display of power, thereby no doubt contributing to inflating the flotilla's importance.
Now trying to find ways to reconcile with Turkey, Israel would do well to avoid simultaneously finding new means to engage in conflict with countries whose activists will be on the Gaza-bound ships. A less fearful country would certainly have offered even to go as far as escorting the flotilla to the Gaza coast.
From Israel, we can at least demand that it let the flotilla get through to the Gaza Strip without once again endangering the country's position in the world.