Israelis saw flotilla as political provocation that had to be stopped

Tue, Jun 1, 2010, 01:00

ANALYSIS:Most Israelis support what the soldiers did as self-defence, writes EDWIN BENNATAN

WHAT THE heck were you guys thinking?, remarked a British colleague to me after Israel’s operation against the Gaza flotilla early yesterday. And actually “heck” was not the word he used. What were the Israelis thinking?

A state that wants to defend its citizens must sometimes take such measures, stated Israel’s Channel 2 commentator Ronny Daniel.

His remark was in sharp contrast to Guy Maroz, who blogged in the daily newspaper Maariv,sarcastically thanking the region’s leaders for “bringing upon us yet another war because that’s just what we needed”.

While Maroz’s darts were directed mainly at his own government, it was Daniel who more accurately reflected mainstream Israel opinion.

Israelis overwhelmingly viewed the flotilla, not as a human rights mission, but as a political provocation intended to create as much confrontation as possible. Letting them through to Gaza was not an option because it would have effectively ended the blockade of the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, whose rulers had both vowed to destroy the Jewish state and had launched thousands of rockets into Israel.

Somewhat naively, Israelis had expected peaceful resistance from the activists and had prepared an almost picnic-style reception for them in Ashdod. After security screening, the cargo was to be transported overland to Gaza and the activists returned home. The Israeli public is now asking why that did not happen.

Political commentator Yoav Limor phrased his response succinctly: no one expected the extent of the violence and the Israel troops should have been better prepared for it. To be fair, five of the six boats in the flotilla offered no more than passive resistance, but one, the Turkish ship Marmara, which was by far the largest, is where the violence erupted. Israeli viewers watched video footage on TV showing the activists throwing stun grenades and firebombs at the troops.

While on the fringes of Israeli society almost every controversial opinion was voiced and debated, there was one common thread among all commentators: the operation was a media catastrophe for Israel. Bar-Ilan University’s Prof Ephraim Inbar stressed that the operation has demonstrated the fragility of Israel’s international standing, but added that if there was a positive outcome, it was that Israel had shown determination to prevent support for Hamas.

But former leftwing politician Yossi Beilin saw nothing positive. Though he justified the operation, he believes that the government’s handling of the fallout was disorganised and ineffective and he called on prime minister Netanyahu to return immediately from the United States. Beilin also called for a commission of inquiry.

Veteran military analyst Aluf Ben echoed Beilin’s words in the leftwing newspaper Ha’aretz. He stated simply that the government had failed when measured solely by the result. The violence on board the Marmara, says Ben, cannot be used as an excuse to transfer the responsibility for the bloodshed from the government to the activists. While Beilin’s and Ben’s sentiments are not representative, calls for commissions of inquiry have a way of gaining momentum.

Not surprisingly Israel’s Arab minority is much more supportive of the Gaza activists than their Jewish counterparts. But otherwise there is a fairly broad consensus in Israel that the troops were fully justified in opening fire in response to the attacks on their comrades, two of whom reportedly suffered bullet wounds. In a preliminary post-mission review, the troops stated: “We were fired upon, we fired back.” The main questions that are now being raised relate to tactics and planning.

So what do Israelis expect now? Essentially more of what they have been subjected to for much of their 62 years of statehood. Israelis feel that there is significant bias against them in the international community. They see their human rights record being singled out for condemnation, out of all proportion to any other country, especially their neighbours.

A radio listener called in to a chat show, following the Gaza flotilla operation, and quoted US politician and diplomat Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

“The amount of violations of human rights in a country,” stated Moynihan, “is always an inverse function of the amount of complaints about human rights violations heard from there. The greater the number of complaints being aired, the better protected are human rights in that country.”

Several subsequent listeners dialed in just to voice their agreement.

Edwin Bennatan is an Israel-based commentator. He writes for The Jerusalem Postand the Jewish Press International