A Failure Any Way You Slice It

Perhaps the commanders of the Israel Navy and policymakers should have read history books before sending special forces to raid boats carrying civilians.

The operational details of Israel's takeover of the flotilla of boats headed to Gaza won't be clear for many days, if ever. But there's no need to wait for a blow-by-blow account to point out that from the military point of view, it is hard to understand how an action that the Israel Navy spent so long planning ended up in so severe a debacle.

And that's without even addressing the questions that arise regarding how wise it was to carry out a military action against civilian craft in international waters.

First, there's the breakdown in intelligence. The navy and the intelligence agencies had the rare opportunity of being able to keep the ships and their passengers under surveillance for a long time. How is it possible that their preparations to attack boarding Israeli soldiers were not detected? Why didn't they know that knives, axes and perhaps even guns and other light arms had been readied?

The intelligence agencies had plenty of time to learn exactly who the people on the boats were and to evaluate how dangerous they were. Presumably, it was not the peace activists whose identities were known who attacked the boarding party with axes and gunfire. That the commandos were taken by surprise is simply incomprehensible.

On the other hand, if there was indeed apprehension in the navy that the people on the boats would resist violently, then the actual form that the boarding took raises questions. Why weren't teargas grenades dropped onto the decks before the commandos stormed the ship?

The claim made by the IDF Spokesman that the soldiers' lives were in danger and they feared a lynching is hardly complimentary to the men of the elite naval units.

But do these troops, whom their commanders describe as "the best trained and most effective in the world" expect to be faced with the danger of being lynched by a mob of civilians wielding knives and clubs? Especially seeing as this was a military operation that was carefully planned over a number of days?

Also unclear is why the soldiers were not given clear orders not to open fire with live ammunition under any circumstances. The IDF has sufficient means for gaining control over rioting mobs using non-lethal force. And if the navy brass informed the decision-makers that there was a reasonable chance that firearms and other weapons would be used and civilians killed, then there is room for doubting the judgment of the policy makers who approved this mission.

Either way, the inefficiency and the panic that overwhelmed the commandos, leading to the deaths of so many, raises worrying questions about their skillfulness and operational capability.

The decision to act at night is also problematic. Presumably, some of the commotion and the hysteria on the ship was a result of the fact that neither the soldiers nor the civilians could see clearly what was going on. This is a sure recipe for escalation on the part of people who have to guess without being able to see who is approaching them and what they are doing.

In October 1962, the Cuban missile crisis broke out. U.S. president John F. Kennedy decided to impose a maritime blockade on the island, to prevent Soviet ships from unloading their cargo there. That crisis ended without a shot being fired.

Perhaps the commanders of the Israel Navy and policymakers should have read about that episode in their history books before sending special forces to raid boats carrying civilians.