What's to investigate? We know what happened to the Gaza flotilla.

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
June 1 2010 10:52 AM

What's To Investigate?

We know what happened to the Gaza flotilla. The debate about the blockade is for another time.

A cargo ship that was part of the 'Freedom Flotilla.' Click image to expand.
Israeli troops aboard a cargo ship that was part of the "Freedom Flotilla"

The condemnation came fast and furious. It came from all corners of the world: from Germany and Iran, from Syria and France, from Turkey and China, with an apparently unified message of criticism. But listen more carefully to the language of condemnation: It was similar in tone but not identical in content. Two U.N. officials argued that such "tragedies are entirely avoidable if Israel heeds the repeated calls of the international community to end its counterproductive and unacceptable blockade of Gaza." For them, what was "unacceptable" was not the disastrous result of Israel's raid on the flotilla. They wanted an end to the blockade on Gaza, as did the Russian foreign ministry and the Turkish government.

But this isn't what Egypt wants. And no wonder. The Egyptians, who share a border with southern Gaza, were also condemned by the emir of Qatar, Hamad bin Jassim, who expressed hope that the incident will "be used as a catalyst to lift Israel's and Egypt's blockade of the Gaza Strip." Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak criticized the use of "excessive and unjustified force" but not the blockade itself. Similarly, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said he "condemns a disproportionate use of force." The White House expressed deep regret over the "loss of life and injuries sustained," but it didn't criticize the siege on Gaza.

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Parsing the language of condemnation is not just a linguistic game; it is a must for all those wanting to understand what happened and what should have happened, to better judge the reason for and the outcome of the raid. The debate about the effectiveness of and justification for the Gaza blockade will be useful some day, but it has nothing to do with the raid on the flotilla.

As long as blockade is the policy, no bunch of kooky protesters can be given the right to enter, no matter how peaceful they claim to be. Neither Turkey nor Russia nor France nor Britain would allow a ship of protesters to cross into its territory, nor into territory it had declared impassable. Whether Gaza is entitled to jurisdiction over its shore is another worthy debate. But it also has nothing to do with the failure of the Israeli government to effectively enforce its policy.

So, the only question that is really relevant to this recent bloodshed on the high seas is about the use of excessive force against the protesters. And it is not a very interesting or complicated question. Assuming that stopping the protesters from entering Gaza was a must—and it was; assuming that the protesters wouldn't agree to any peaceful compromise short of a victorious landing in Gaza—and they didn't; assuming that fair warnings had been made to them—and Israel warned the protesters time and again that passage would not be allowed. Assuming, or rather, understanding all this, was there a way for Israel to achieve its goal without having to kill nine passengers?

The short answer is probably yes. Then again, Israel wasn't raiding the ship Mavi Marmara expecting to kill at least nine civilians. It has nothing to gain from such a disaster and a lot to lose. Preaching to its soldiers time and again that this is a propaganda war, that they should act with "determination and sensitivity," a slogan that has become a mantra in the IDF, that bloody images will only serve the cause of the gang of sailors—it's not as if Israelis and their emissaries in uniform didn't realize that the goal should be to end this debacle with as little blood spilled as possible. As it happens, somewhere on the way to the ship's deck, Israeli operatives miscalculated, and the protesters who were sowing the wind reaped a whirlwind.

Better information was needed. The commandos didn't know they were going to face an angry mob armed with knives and bats. Different equipment was needed: The raiders apparently didn't have enough nonlethal weapons on hand. A more creative approach was needed: Maybe a way to stop the ship without having to board it. But these are all just technical details of an operation gone sour. Those countries and organizations now wanting an "investigation" can get the answers they need without having to trouble themselves with a lengthy examination. Here's what happened: The soldiers were surprised by a mob; they saw their friends being lynched; they acted as any soldier would have and should have acted. To save their fellow soldiers, they opened fire. Civilians were killed. It's no cause for pride—but also nothing to be ashamed of.

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Shmuel Rosner is a Tel Aviv-based columnist. He blogs daily at Rosner's Domain.