May 31, 2010Foreign AffairsIsraelmaritime securityPalestineRealismrealpolitik

Understanding Israel’s response to the flotilla

Making Israel look bad doesn’t help the Palestinians

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn.

The organisers of the Freedom Flotilla”—a convoy of ships that intended to bust the Israeli blockade of Gaza—presented the Israeli government with a stark choice: stop the convoy and lose the global PR battle, or permit it and lose that and a whole lot more. In the event, it is not surprising that Israel chose the first option—and just lose the PR battle.

Was Israel’s reaction—its forces killed 10 activists and injured several more—disproportionate? That’s a difficult judgement to make. After all, what is a proportionate response to deter non-state actors from violating its authority without any fear of consequences? If, instead of a flotilla’, some state’s navy had attempted to violate the blockade, it would well have been interpreted as an act of war. Why should non-state actors be treated differently? The Israeli government was justified in preventing non-state actors from challenging its authority.

But could Israel’s reaction have been less forceful? Could the Israelis have turned the ships back without using lethal force? Perhaps yes. If you go by the official Israeli version of events, that is exactly what they say they first attempted. They used lethal force only when the activists on the ship put up a fight. The flotilla’s floaters might deny this and argue that they didn’t expect violence. This is disingenuous. It is also unbelievable. They should have foreseen such a scenario before putting civilian activists in harm’s way. It is unclear if there were unambiguous rules of engagement, communicated to the activists and to the Israeli authorities. In the event, the organisers cannot escape their part of the responsibility for the unfortunate casualties.

For their part, the organisers of the convoy won the global PR battle. To what end, though? It’s not as if the Palestinian case needs to be made to the world’s governments (even if it has to be made for another generation of television audiences). The solution to the age-old Israel-Palestinian conflict involves compromises that both sides have to make, which the rest of the world can then support. Actions by outsiders that encourage both sides to compromise are helpful. Actions that attempt to paint one side of the conflict as the villain are not. Infuriating the Israeli government might allow the flotilla’s organisers to score political points and make the Israeli government look bad in front of the world’s television audiences. But it is unlikely to make it any easier for the Israeli government to make the difficult compromises necessary to move towards a solution.

As Yaakov Katz, a commentator in the Jerusalem Post concludes:

Let’s not fool ourselves. Even if Israel allowed these ships and all such ships to dock in Gaza City’s harbor, it would still be accused of laying siege to the Palestinians in the Strip since, albeit along with Egypt, it controls the land crossings.

In the end, after all, the flotilla is just another chapter in an international campaign to chip away at Israel’s legitimate right to defend itself. [Jerusalem Post]

Update:

[1] See Galrahn’s post at Information Dissemination for a discussion on the legality of Israel’s actions.

[2] Alan Dershowitz, professor of law at Harvard university, explains why Israel’s actions were lawful but unwise.



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