The pictures published this morning by a Turkish newspaper, of Israeli commandos being beaten by terrorists masking as “peace activists” aboard the Mavi Marmara ship last week, hit me in the stomach. I felt like throwing up in disgust, helplessness and anger. I assume any Israeli who saw these pictures felt the same. These soldiers are our children, our family. My neighbour’s son serves in this distinguished commando unit.
But after the initial shock, I discovered that my anger is directed not only at the terrorist mob. After all, I have no expectations from this scum of the earth. It is directed also at the people who put the soldiers in this situation. And I don’t mean only their direct commanders, who failed to plan this operation properly. If the buck stops at the IDF level, then we would have learnt nothing from this miserable incident.
There are multiple layers that need to be analysed in order to understand what led to the horrific images published this morning. Unfortunately, the discussion in Israel over the past week has been focused on the tactical level. The propaganda media campaign unleashed by the government, and faithfully reproduced and regurgitated by the willing masses on different social media platforms, set out to prove that the soldiers were attacked first and therefore had to fight back. All true. Perhaps this focus was borne out of necessity, to push back against the lies being fed to the media by Turkey and the Arab world (in the words of the hugely successful “Flotilla Choir” clip by LatmaTV: “we con the world”). But being right on the tactical level – “the activists attacked the soldiers, so the soldiers had to defend themselves” – does not necessarily mean Israel is right on other, more important, levels.
To truly comprehend the conundrum Israel finds itself in, the onion needs to be peeled. So let’s start peeling.
1. Tactical Level
Until the IDF finishes its enquiry into the raid, we will not know for sure what exactly happened on the ship. But from the details that have emerged so far, it seems the soldiers operated as best as one could expect. The instructions they were given did not match the reality they encountered, and nevertheless they reacted quickly and decisively. Based on the video footage and the pictures, nine casualties on the activists’ side and none on the soldiers’ side are testimony to the commandos’ professionalism. It is also testimony to the relatively moderate response by the soldiers, who managed to keep their cool and not shoot indiscriminately in order to save themselves and their friends from the lynching mob. There is no doubt in my mind how the US military, for example, would have reacted if a Navy Seal were seen to be thrown overboard; I’m guessing not much would have been left from the Mavi Marmara.
2. Operational Level
In sharp contrast to the tactical level, the operational intelligence gathering and the modus operandi of the IDF leave a lot to be desired for. The Gaza Flotilla was a known “threat” for weeks before the incident. With 600 people on board the Mavi Marmara, it is almost unbelievable that Israel’s intelligence on what the activists were preparing for was so lacking. I am no military expert, but surely a better plan of action could have been devised, one that would not have put the lives of the soldiers at such risk. For example, disabling the ship in high waters, or towing the ship without boarding it. it’s been done before.
Having said that, operational mistakes happen. No military action is free from errors. I’m certain the IDF will draw the appropriate conclusions from this fiasco. Unfortunately, I cannot be similarly confident about the next layers in our onion.
3. Government Level
The seven “inner circle” ministers, the so-called “septet”, were supposed to review, discuss and authorise this operation. Three of the seven – Netanyahu, Barak and Ya’alon – are considered leading experts on military matters; two – Meridor and Begin – are said to have decades of experience dealing with Israel’s most covert secrets; another – Lieberman – is a self-proclaimed expert on all matters strategic; and only one – Yishai – does not have a “security expert” badge attached to his name. Barak claims that all cabinet members were fully informed of the raid in advance and none expressed any reservations. But there are reports (from anonymous sources of course) that the report was very high-level and contained no real details. This would be in line with Barak’s know-it-all attitude; his brilliantly analytical mind is famously short-tempered with lesser beings that take more than 30 seconds to analyse a situation and reach a conclusion.
I would not be surprised, if we ever do get to learn the full truth, that Barak and Netanyahu planned this operation among themselves. Or, more accurately, Barak planned and Netanyahu approved. This would not be the first time that Barak over-confidence leads to screw-ups and it would not be the first time Netanyahu misjudges the capabilities of his Defence Minister. Netanyahu is a weak Prime Minister, despite his public image.
It is worth noting that the previous government, headed by Olmert, also had to deal with ships bound for Gaza, twice: in 2008 and in 2009. On both occasions, there was no endless babble by ministers, no special cabinet meetings, no screaming headlines that our brave soldiers were waiting for the ships and no pompous declarations that Israel would not allow Gaza to become “an Iranian port”. The first ship was allowed to proceed to Gaza, and the activists, after realising their PR stunt failed, actually begged Israel to let them out. The second ship was towed to Ashdod, inspected, and allowed to proceed to Gaza. I’m sure few remember these incidents, because the Olmert government wisely avoided playing into Hamas’ hands and dealt with the “threat” in a clear-headed and balanced manner. It is only under a weak Prime Minister like Netanyahu that knife-wielding terrorists become a strategic threat to the existence of Israel.
4. Strategic Level
Now we get to the core of the onion.
The real problem lies not with the soldiers or the army. Nor does it lie with this particular government, awful as it may be. It lies with Israel’s strategic position, pursued for more than four decades now, with regards to the Israeli-Palestinian problem.
Israel’s victory in the 1967 six-day war was so stunning from a military perspective, that it managed to confuse Israel (and the world) for a long time. The dazzlingly bright light emanating from the IDF’s victory – defeating three armies, conquering the Sinai, the Gaza strip, the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, all in six days! – managed make Israel blind to the huge matzo ball that came along with this victory: the Palestinians. The problem was compounded by the impotence of Israel’s governments in the 1970s to stop the initial settlement of ideologically-driven Jews in the occupied territories, a problem that mushroomed into a real geopolitical disaster after the Likud came to power in 1977 and made settlements part of its policy. 43 years and 300,000 settlers later, the six-day war is not over; Israel is stuck with the West Bank like a huge thorn in its side, and suddenly finds itself running an Apartheid-like state (there are more Arabs than Jews between the sea and the Jordan river), with no clear idea where it’s all going.
As a result of this incapacitating blindness, it is understandable why nobody wishes to peal the onion and deal with the core problem. It is much easier to stay at the tactical or operational levels and cry foul at a world that does not understand us. Israelis are in their comfort zone when they need to deal with an irrational media campaign directed against a particular action by Israel; “the entire world is against us” attitude works wonders to restore the damaged pride of seeing our soldiers being beaten and humiliated. It is time Israelis stepped out of this imaginary comfort zone, realise that the current situation is untenable and do something about it. A first step would be to get rid of the current government, one that has brought us nothing but grief.