Daniel R. DePetris: The Political Docket

Memoriable Day Siege On The High Seas

Posted in Israeli-Palestinian Conflict by Dan on June 1, 2010

There is no other place in the world today that generates as much controversy and debate as the Gaza Strip; the slim coastal enclave smaller than the island of Manhattan that is home to approximately 1.5 million Palestinians.

The Gaza Strip has been governed by Hamas- a U.S. and Israeli designated terrorist organization- since 2007, when its fighters drove Mahmoud Abbas’ forces from the territory in a convincing display of coordinated force.  Sensing that a ferocious adversary now controlled a quasi-state right next door, the Israeli Government responded to the takeover with a brand new set of economic restrictions, including a naval blockade off the Gaza coast and a ban on certain materials.  The sale and distribution of steel, cement, and other construction materials are prohibited inside the Strip, although an impressive system of makeshift underground tunnels along the Egyptian border has diminished the effectiveness of the entire blockade.  Certain foods like jam, avocados, spices, and chocolates are also confiscated by Israeli authorities and denied to ordinary Palestinians living under Hamas rule.

The Gaza siege was supposed to put pressure on Hamas officials from the bottom up.  By making life virtually unbearable, there was a possibility that Palestinians living inside the Strip would revolt against the Islamist government out of both anger and desperation.  But unfortunately, after three years of the blockade, the objectives that Israel has sought to accomplish remain distant.  Hamas is still the primary authority in Gaza politics, Mahmoud Abbas has been unable to take the initiative and draw popular support away from the Hamas Movement, and weapons still make their way into the hands of Hamas through a sophisticated smuggling network.  In fact, if this morning’s tragic loss of life is any indication, the fortification of the Gaza Strip has actually given Jerusalem an ever greater headache.

In case you haven’t heard the news, Israeli Navy commandos intercepted a convoy of ships that were attempting to make their way to the Gaza Strip.  At the onset, it seemed like an ordinary operation from an Israeli perspective: in accordance with the embargo policy, Israeli forces would stop the ship from entering Gaza and deport those responsible.  But within the few minutes of the operation, ordinary quickly succumbed to catastrophic.

The ships were carrying thousands of pounds of civilian materials for the people of Gaza, mostly supplies that could be used to reconstruct homes that were damaged by the 2008-2009 war between Israel and Hamas militants.  The ships were also being commandeered by humanitarian workers and pro-Palestinian activists, all of whom view the Israeli siege as an unjust act of “collective punishment.”

If the activists were arrested and deported by Israeli authorities, perhaps we wouldn’t be talking about this event.  After all, the Israeli Government has thwarted a number of civilian campaigns in the past, even if the humanitarian mission is well-planned and moderate in size.

This time it was different.  14 people were killed and about 30 were injured when Israeli commandos stormed the ships at nightfall, making this one of the deadliest naval operations along the Israeli coast in decades.  So far, most of the victims have been described by hospital officials as Turkish nationals.

To say the very least, the loss of life is unfortunate, particularly when similar operations have been dealt with in a much more peaceful and professional manner (intercepting boats destined for the Gaza Strip is a fairly routine occurrence for the Israeli Navy).  Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli Foreign Ministry claim that the commandos were firing in self defense after activists wielded knives as they tried to subdue the convoy.  The Arab media is reporting the story quite differently, stating that Israeli soldiers fired indiscriminately at unarmed civilians.  I honestly don’t know what to believe or who to believe at this point, because events are still unfolding and everyone has their own interpretations about what happened “in the moment.”  But what is clear is that Israel must now find some way to manage another diplomatic snafu.

So far, Turkey has recalled its ambassador from Israel in a show of protest over the deadly raid, calling it a “murder conducted by a state;” the European Union is calling the attack an indiscriminate show of force; U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is vehemently ordering a full and detailed investigation into what actually happened; the Israeli P.M. cancelled his trip to Washington to cool the fallout; protests have erupted across much of the Arab world; and the U.N. Security Council called an emergency session to draft a resolution expressing its strong displeasure.

To label this as a crisis is perhaps mollifying its significance.  Israel is already facing challenges from the international community on a number of fronts, whether its settlement activity in the West Bank or covert security missions in allied nations.  Before this development unfolded, the Turkish-Israeli relationship was slowly getting back to normal after a pretty extensive period of frosty exchanges.  And indirect peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority were finally kicking off after eighteen months of stalemate.

This episode on the high seas has the potential of jeopardizing each and every one of these improvements.  Whether it will or not remains to be seen (Israeli authorities will undoubtedly try to lift themselves out of the water in the hopes of avoiding the shark).  Yet even with this uncertainty, international condemnation from Europeans and Arabs alike is not the start that Prime Minister Netanyahu was looking for.

Note:  The Obama administration is taking a much more cautious approach to the entire ordeal, telling the press corps that the United States “expressed deep regret at the loss of life.”

-Daniel R. DePetris

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**Comments courtesy of Blake Hounshell of FP.com, Marc Lynch of FP.com, and the Economist**


13 Responses

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  1. Matt714 said, on June 1, 2010 at 3:56 am

    I wonder what would have been the reaction of the European governments if a flotilla had violated their territorial waters, despite early warnings that any such attempts would be considered as a hostile action.

    If the mission had really been humanitarian in nature, there would have been an innumerable number of other ways to dispatch the aid.

    Of course the Western media assumes that Israeli commandos fired first without provocation, since they’re inherently evil and irrational.

    • Bookfisher said, on June 1, 2010 at 3:56 am

      the water outside Gaza is not Israels and the assault took place in international waters, this is called piracy. What ever happen on that ship Israel was the aggressor, and few could have done this without Turkey declaring war and calling in Nato

    • StraightTalk said, on June 1, 2010 at 3:57 am

      This flotilla is a mockery of human rights. If aid to Palestinians was its true intent, it would have taken the options offered by Israel to deliver that aid. This was pure and simple an act of incitement intended to dupe folks, many of whom write on this blog, into viewing Israel as the guilty party. Israel’s enemies have learned they cannot defeat her militarily. Rather, they have embarked on a media battle intended to brand Israel as a violator of human rights and weaken her standing in the international community.

      There would be no blockade of Gaza were the terrorist organization Hamas to end its vow to destroy Israel and enter into peace negotiations. Palestinians in the Gaza do indeed live a miserable existence, but it is a direct result of their terrorist leaders. Put the responsibility to for this incident where it belongs – on the Hamas and its sympathizers.

  2. BenjaminFranklin said, on June 1, 2010 at 3:58 am

    Both sides will be so busy spinning the story that it will be very difficult to establish just what happened. One thing is clear to me, and that is when the Israelis elected Bibi, the heavy hand that has led to PR disasters for Israel became inevitable. Bibi has no empathy at all for Arabs, and no respect for his allies, and this inevitably leads to thuggish behavior which alienates everyone except for the Israeli right wing.

  3. Grant said, on June 1, 2010 at 4:00 am

    I’m not going to discount the possibility of the passengers being armed, but I have to wonder why the Israeli’s sent to the ship were armed with live ammunition (at the least there’s nothing so far to suggest that rubber bullets or water hoses were used). Regardless Israel seems to have politically lost this round, especially as I have trouble accepting allegations of links to Al Qaeda.

  4. JGarbuz said, on June 1, 2010 at 4:01 am

    The American people are almost exhausted by Muslim terror antics and economic turmoil, and are not used to sacrifice and hardship the way Israelis are. A few little wars and some economic setbacks, and the American people are propagandized into throwing up their hands. In WWII, my father was lucky to get dog meat to survive during the Siege of Leningrad, but Americans have never suffered those kinds of privations since the siege of Atlanta in the Civil War. So Americans start with a lot of bravado, but give up when the going gets long and tiresome. They just give up and go home. Israel is home, and it has no place to retreat to. It will not surrender or submit to the lunatic antics of the Islamofascists, the God of Israel willing.

    • J Thomas said, on June 1, 2010 at 4:02 am

      The American people have traditionally known a lot of things that were not true, but we’re starting to wise up.

  5. kroptkin said, on June 1, 2010 at 4:04 am

    The urgent question poised is whether international public opinion will allow the siege of Gaza to continue. I claim that the moral questions need to be decoupled from the political ones. The siege of Gaza is punishment for the people for electing representatives of their choice. I hope The Economist will investigate the morality and success rates of medieval sieges to affect political change.

    • David Hadden said, on June 1, 2010 at 4:06 am

      How can Israel besiege Gaza when Gaza shares a significant border with Egypt? The Israelis offered to let all the aid stuff go through one of its ports, after inspection; the activists refused.

      • Froy" said, on June 1, 2010 at 4:07 am

        David Hadden:

        “How can Israel besiege Gaza when Gaza shares a significant border with Egypt?”

        Answer: with the complicity of the Egyptian despot Hosni Mubarak, long time on the US payroll and always subservient to Israel’s demands.

        “The Israelis offered to let all the aid stuff go through one of its ports, after inspection; the activists refused.”

        Correction: Israel offered to let in all the aid it deemed acceptable, which could perfectly mean “nothing”, knowing the precedents. In any case, as the UN has made perfectly clear, the blockade is illegal and even possibly a war crime, so foreign countries shouldn’t be expected to comply with such a criminal policy. One of the aims of the flotilla was precisely to break the siege and encourage others to bring in necessary goods through direct channels, instead of allowing Israel choose the diet of the Gazans.

      • True Gosal said, on June 1, 2010 at 4:07 am

        David Hadden:
        Yes, Egypt play some part in the siege of Gaza by closing the border between Egypt and Gaza but what makes the whole thing insane is that Isreal came to international waters to board this ship! Wonder if this is any different from Somali pirates?

  6. imcampos said, on June 1, 2010 at 4:04 am

    On one side, professional, highly trained, albeit paranoid, armed forces. On the other, activists, well intended civilians, assorted journalists, radical protesters, you name it. Typically middle-eastern. But the responsibility to confront with restraint and with the adequate choice of weapons lies squarely with the professionals. Terrible handling, terrible PR.

  7. Froy" said, on June 1, 2010 at 4:05 am

    It’s really weird to see how Israel is digging its own tomb. Gratuitous acts of brutality and lawlessness like this just boost the growing calls for boycott against the Israeli regime. It is clear for all to see now that Israel has lost any moral standing it may have had. It has become a violently paranoid rogue state on a mad race towards self-destruction. But maybe the South African medicine will cure its insanity. That’s what it’ll be getting, anyway.

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