With a barrage of unrelenting condemnation and hate cascading on Israel, the battle outside of the country is one of black and white, right and wrong. Israel’s diplomats and spokesmen were still busy on Tuesday defending the Jewish state’s actions in the international arena — pointing out that when confronted with bats, metal pipes, and violent mobs, the soldiers that landed on the roof of the Mavi Marmara intending to divert it from Gaza to Israel had no choice but to open fire to defend their lives.
Within Israel, however, the black and white has melted into gray, as the internal debate heats up as to whether this diplomatic and public relations black eye could have somehow been avoided while still protecting the country’s security. And the questions are not being asked only on the left. Even those who firmly believe that the blockade is justified, its enforcement necessary, and that the flotilla’s progress to Gaza needed to be impeded somehow are asking if there could have been a better way for the story of the “Freedom Flotilla” to end.
Some even believe that heads — particularly Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s — should roll over the numerous miscalculations.
Questions over the decision-making regarding the flotilla, both on the political level and the military level, flew thick and fast on Tuesday, in both the media and in the political arena. The lead story in the Hebrew daily Ma’ariv quoted senior ministers angrily calling for Barak’s resignation, charging that the final decision about the Gaza flotilla was made without proper discussion by the full cabinet or even the full “group of seven” ministers at the top. An unnamed minister “at the most senior level” charged that Barak made the decision to move ahead with the commando operation singlehandedly, asking only for Netanyahu’s approval. The official is “furious” at Barak’s “power-drunk,” “irresponsible” behavior at a time when the prime minister was out of the country. And he is not alone.
In Ha’aretz, Ari Shavit rounded up a few of the questions Israelis were asking one another over the radio airwaves and on the street:
What happened to Israel’s vaunted creativity? Why was the worst of all possible options chosen? Where was the army chief of staff? Where were the intelligence services? Why did we walk into this trap, which we managed to avoid in all the years of the second intifada, with our eyes open? Why didn’t we see that instead of tightening the siege on Gaza, we were about to tighten the siege on ourselves?
Shavit’s colleague Yossi Melman, author of a book on the history of Israel’s intelligence services, painted the operation first and foremost as an intelligence failure.
Apparently Israel, which prides itself as having the best intelligence in the world, should have known that there were violent elements aboard one of the boats equipped with iron bars, knives, and slingshots. Had Israel known this, it would have probably used more appropriate ways to storm the boat to avoid death and injuries.
Melman was not alone in his criticism. One need not have been an intelligence operative to understand the nature and intentions of those aboard the flotilla. Video of the chanting of inciting slogans was available on the internet, and messages coming from the flotilla on Facebook, Twitter, and other websites made it clear that there was more of a chance of violent confrontation than military decision-makers took into consideration. If Israel did know this was no humanitarian group, but a Hamas-affiliated terror organization, why didn’t its leadership expect this behavior and equip its soldiers properly? Instead of ridiculously believing that paintball guns would be sufficient?
IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi assured critics that an IDF probe of the operation was already underway and full explanations would be supplied. Some of the answers began to emerge on Tuesday, as senior IDF officials testified before the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.
In his testimony, Col. Itzik Turgeman responded to the much-asked question of why there was no attempt to disable the engine of the Marmara instead of — or in addition to — deploying soldiers on the decks. He said that this was an option which was intensively discussed and explored, but that the size and speed of the boat precluded the ability to do this. Also, there was concern that the length of time it would take to tow the disabled ship and the rest of the flotilla could create a humanitarian crisis on board if passengers ran out of food and water.
He also admitted that the passengers had the IDF fooled.
Turgeman said that at 4:20 a.m. local time Monday, IDF troops observed the Mavi Marmara, and as the deck seemed quiet, they assessed that the passengers on board were sleeping. In reality, the passengers were waiting for the soldiers armed with clubs and other weapons.
Other criticism is aimed at political leaders for failing to approach the problem in a more creative manner and failing to fully explore alternatives to force — by somehow negotiating with the group via the Turkish government in a way that could save face for both sides, as David Horovitz suggested in the Jerusalem Post:
What would also have helped would have been for Israel to try to utilize six decades of unbroken diplomatic relations with Turkey — whose government essentially sponsored this flotilla, and whose nationals are among the dead — to try to resolve this ongoing crisis. The former Israeli ambassador to Turkey, Alon Liel, has been urging that Israel ask Turkey to send escort vessels to accompany the flotilla back home, rather than holding them and their incendiary human cargo at Ashdod.
Knesset Member Arieh Eldad of the National Union party said that Israel should draw a lesson from the incident as to the potential danger of underestimating “peace activists”:
Maybe after this operation, with its murderous character, Israel will respond in a different manner to Bil’in and Nil’in, to all the anarchist groups for peace, and the organizations working in the name of Arab Israelis. Israel needs to understand that most of these groups are the forerunners of terror groups, promoting interests against Israel. We need to treat them as organizations who have come to kill IDF soldiers.
As the critics shot their arrows from both right and left, Israel coped with the passengers aboard the boats — who are being deported, detained, or treated for injuries — and the hospitalized Israeli soldiers struggling to recover from bullet wounds.
Participation in the flotilla action is being treated as a crime for Israeli citizens. Three prominent Arab Israelis who participated have already been remanded to court to face charges for their actions: the head of the Islamic Movement’s northern branch, Sheikh Raed Salah; the head of its southern branch, Hamad Abu Daa’bas; and Mohammad Zeidan, chairman of the Arab Higher Monitoring Committee.
If that wasn’t enough for Israel to have on their plate Tuesday, an infiltration attempt of the southern Gaza fence by two armed men from Gaza took place.
Undeniably, however, the most urgent task at hand for Israel’s leadership is figuring out how to somehow apply the lessons of the “Freedom Flotilla” towards its next major challenge. Two ships bearing “humanitarian aid” are gearing up to head for Gaza. One unnamed Navy commander gave the Jerusalem Post a clear indication as to the direction the IDF will likely take after this:
We boarded the ship and were attacked as if it was a war. … That will mean that we will have to come prepared in the future as if it was a war.