That's No Way To Enforce a Blockade
How Israel botched what should have been a straightforward military operation.
Israel's storming of the Mavi Marmara, killing at least nine Free Gaza activists and wounding several more, was an act of jaw-gaping stupidity—strategically and tactically, even leaving aside morally.
You needn't be a partisan of Hamas to think so. Look at today's headlines on the editorial page of Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz: "The price of flawed policy," "Fiasco on the high seas," "Seven idiots in the cabinet," "A failure any way you slice it."
Let us stipulate that Israel's blockade of Gaza—which has been policy since 2007, when Hamas took control after winning the parliamentary elections yet kept up mortar attacks against Israeli territory—is legitimate. (It's worth noting, in this context, that Egypt has been enforcing a blockade on land, as well.)
It is also certainly clear, by their own admission, that the organizers of the six-ship flotilla sailing toward Gaza intended not merely to deliver aid to Palestinians but also to challenge the blockade, a move that they had to expect might provoke a confrontation.
That being the case, Israeli commanders had the right—as a matter of national security—to block the ship's passage, even by boarding it if necessary, especially if they first issued radio warnings to turn back or face consequences (as, in this instance, they did).
However, as Clausewitz famously noted, war is politics by other means. A blockade is an act of war (in this case, an extension of the fact that Hamas considers itself to be at war with Israel); when it comes to wars involving Israel, any act of violence is fraught with politics in every meaning of the word. And in this sense, Israel's actions on the Mavi Marmara reflect a total disconnect between military means and political ends.
Navies have been mounting blockades for centuries; it's one of the things that navies were created to do. The Israeli navy has been turning back the occasional boatload of peace activists or Palestinian protesters ever since the Gaza blockade went into effect, with so little tumult the incidents have hardly been noticed.
Usually, the boats have been turned back or towed to Ashdod, an Israeli harbor north of Gaza, where the aid parcels are inspected—and, in some cases, confiscated—before being sent on to Gaza by truck. On at least four occasions, though, boats have been allowed to land in Gaza's harbor, with no noticeable compromise to Israeli security.
True, Sunday's flotilla was by far the largest: six boats, one quite large, carrying a total of 600 people and reportedly 10,000 tons of aid. Still, these were registered civilian vessels, hoisting the Turkish flag and—at the time of the incident—sailing in international waters.
Israel says the commandos fired only in self-defense. It has been reported that the activists went at the commandos with clubs, chairs, steel pipes, fists, and the occasional knife—no doubt frightening, especially if the Israeli landing crew didn't expect resistance. But this was an elite Israeli team, presumably trained to deal with organized military foes armed with grenades, machine guns, and worse.
The questions here are fairly obvious: Why shouldn't the Israeli commandos have expected resistance, at least as an operational premise? Why weren't they equipped with nonlethal weapons? Why didn't they fire a few canisters of tear gas as they boarded or once the first brickbats flew?
There was nothing surprising, after all, about the appearance of these boats. They had converged and set sail from Cyprus a day earlier. More to the point, the activists had been planning their voyage—and very publicly announcing their intentions—for weeks.
The Israelis, in short, had plenty of time to issue warnings, explain to the public (including to the Turkish government) what steps might ensue if the activists carried out their plans—and, more important, to plan what the Israeli navy should do if the boats broke through the 28-kilometer "exclusion zone" (which apparently they didn't quite cross before the landing took place in any case).
That the Israeli government did nothing to gain the upper hand in the all-but-certain propaganda battle to come is baffling.
But what's appalling—really mind-twisting—is that the Israelis seem to have had no plan for what to do under such circumstances in general.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of Israeli soldiers by Uriel Sinai/AFP/Getty Images.