Israel's attack on vessels will only benefit Hamas
ANALYSIS:The shooting dead of humanitarian activists on a vessel bringing supplies to a blockaded Gaza only further alienates the Jewish state internationally, writes DENIS STAUNTON
IN ISRAEL last week for a series of government briefings the jokes about stolen passports started as soon as we arrived at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport. Many Israelis have a dark, sardonic sense of humour and the jokes were partly at their own expense so nobody was inclined to take offence.
As the week wore on, however, as one official after another played down concerns about the use of Irish passports in the assassination of a Hamas operative in Dubai, the joke started to wear a bit thin.
“What you’re telling us is that your security matters so much that you should be able to take any steps necessary to defend it but that ours doesn’t matter at all?” I suggested to one diplomat in Jerusalem.
He stared across the table and shrugged.
A senior Israeli official told me his government is “deeply concerned” about the country’s unpopularity in many parts of the world, particularly in Europe. The European Union is Israel’s biggest trading partner and its most fertile source of tourists but Europeans have become increasingly critical of Israel in recent years, particularly since the bombardment of Gaza 18 months ago.
Yesterday’s attack on a flotilla of ships carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza shocked even Israel’s strongest supporters in Europe and provoked outrage in Turkey, until recently a solid diplomatic and military ally of the Jewish state.
The White House issued a cautious expression of regret but the EU demanded an explanation from Israel as the UN security council met in emergency session to discuss the attack, which the Arab League described as “a terrorist act”.
Israeli spokesmen were on television screens around the world within minutes of the attack, blaming the Free Gaza activists for the bloodbath at sea. Defence minister Ehud Barak described the flotilla as a political provocation sponsored by violent supporters of a terrorist organisation.
The Israeli Defence Forces said activists on board the Turkish ferry Mavi Marmaratried to lynch the heavily armed naval commandos who stormed the ship.
None of this is likely to change the view of most outsiders that the Israeli commandos used excessive force to prevent a humanitarian aid convoy from reaching the beleaguered people of Gaza.
And none of it will prevent a deterioration of Jerusalem’s relations with key international actors at a time when Israel needs all the friends it can find.
Yesterday’s incident is the latest in a succession of recent Israeli actions that could almost have been designed to lose friends and alienate people, starting with the bombardment of Gaza itself.
The use of forged or stolen passports in the Dubai assassination, for which Israel has neither admitted nor denied responsibility, drew diplomatic protests from Ireland, Britain and Australia. A visit to Israel by US vice-president Joe Biden was overshadowed by the approval of new settlement building in East Jerusalem, in defiance of Washington’s call for a freeze on such construction.
Relations with Turkey, already soured by the offensive in Gaza, were further damaged in January when Israel’s deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon made the Turkish ambassador sit on a low couch during a public dressing-down over a television series viewed as offensive to Israel.
In 1949, Turkey became the first Muslim country to recognise the state of Israel and military ties between the two countries were sealed in 1996 with the signing of a military co-operation accord. Ankara has grown increasingly critical of Israeli actions in the Palestinian Territories, however, and Jerusalem is alarmed by a recent warming in Turkey’s relations with Iran.
Israel’s concerns about its own security are real and well-founded and officials in Jerusalem seem genuinely bewildered by European criticism of its actions. Ignoring international outrage and blasting critics as terrorism’s fellow-travellers is, however, unlikely to strengthen alliances or to win understanding.
The main beneficiary of yesterday’s violent action at sea is likely to be Hamas, whose repressive, autocratic rule in Gaza has seen its popularity among Palestinians diminish in recent months.
US-sponsored proximity talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, which were looking unpromising from the start, now appear more doomed than ever.
Israel’s military power, combined with an enclave system that keeps Palestinians penned in behind concrete walls, fences and checkpoints, has kept most Israelis safe from terrorist attacks for the past few years.
Real security, however, will only come with a comprehensive peace settlement embraced by both sides in the conflict, normalised relations with Israel’s Arab neighbours and the support of the international community.
Yesterday’s action has pushed that prospect further away and, in the process, made Israel less secure than before.
Denis Staunton is Foreign Editor