A Just Decision Badly Executed

No complaints can be made against Israel's naval commandos. They fought bravely and showed remarkable restraint. Responsibility lies entirely with military and political leaders.

The government's decision to stop the vessels in the flotilla and avert a breach in the maritime blockade of Gaza was appropriate, correct and justified. There are no half-sieges.

Israeli soldiers aboard a naval vessel in the Mediterranean Sea, May 31, 2010

Ending the blockade and allowing for free and unrestricted movement of goods and people into the Gaza Strip, without control and inspection by Israel or a responsible and competent international body, would be an act of national irresponsibility of the first order.

In the long run, the result of such a situation would be a grave threat to the state and its citizens - it would also be incompatible with existing agreements on this matter. The inevitable result of allowing ships to reach Gaza would be exactly that: an end to the maritime blockade and with it an end to the siege.

From the moral standpoint, the government's decision was impeccable. Israel has the full right to impose a maritime blockade against the Hamas regime in Gaza, which has declared war on it. And having done so and announced it, Israel has the full right to stop ships trying to breach the blockade, even in international waters. Not only is there no crime here, as author David Grossman has charged in Haaretz, there is not even a scintilla of a transgression.

The San Remo Convention explicitly endorses the right of a state that has declared a maritime blockade to capture, and if need be even to attack, a vessel of any state if there are reasonable suspicions that the ship intends to try to run the blockade. The vessel simply needs to given due warning. U.S. president John F. Kennedy stopped Soviet ships more than 100 kilometers from Cuba, and even fired a warning shot - while there was no state of war between the United States and Cuba or the Soviet Union.

Regrettably, however, in the case of the flotilla, the operational failure was as great as the moral justification was deep. The mission assigned to the commander of the navy was not to stop the boats - any armed force could do that, even Somali pirates. The mission he was given, and what was expected of him, was to stop the boats without any loss of life or limb. This was not an easy task, but it should have been clear to everyone that any other outcome would be fraught with disaster. He did not carry out this mission.

No complaints can be made against the naval commandos. They fought bravely and showed remarkable restraint. Responsibility lies entirely with the senior military and political leaders. They sent the commandos on a mission marked by faulty planning, clumsy implementation and bad intelligence. Whoever ordered the commandos to prepare to handle peace activists - on a boat where Ra'ad Salah was setting the tone - should be punished. The original sin was the sin that Yitzhak Rabin used to decry: arrogance, complacency and overconfidence.

On top of all this, there was the unparalleled public relations debacle. It is astounding that the Israel Defense Forces has not yet grasped the supreme importance of the PR front. Footage shot at 5 A.M. that is broadcast at 7 P.M. is as useless as a citron the day after Sukkot.

We can only hope that the army will draw all the appropriate conclusions as quickly as possible, because severe challenges lie ahead.