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June 04, 2010

The Gaza Flotilla incident has exposed the Israeli armed forces to something even more deadly than hatred: ridicule, argues Brendan Simms

Posted by Brendan Simms

If Israel had used more limited force earlier on to counter the Gaza Peace Flotilla, the Israeli's would be in a much stronger position, says Brendan Simms - Professor in the History of International Relations, University of Cambridge.

In the funniest scene of Roman Polanski's recent thriller Ghost, the hero is besieged in his car by an angry crowd of anti-war activists outside the home of the former Prime Minister Adam Lang (Tony Blair). As sticks and blows rain down on the vehicle, he receives a call on his mobile. He says:

I can't talk now, there is a crowd of peace protestors trying to kill me!
I was reminded of this remark when watching footage of Israeli special forces attempting to storm one of the Gaza Peace Flotilla. The sheer violence of the response: flailing iron bars, throwing soldiers overboard, and snatching firearms, showed that this was very far from being a Gandhi-style exercise in passive resistance.

The only surprise here is that the Israelis were surprised. Some of the activists made no secret of their desire to seek martyrdom in the quest to break through to Gaza. They were filmed en route chanting:

Khaybar, Khaybar, [the battle at which Muhammed vanquished the Jews in 629] Oh Jews, the army of Muhammed will return.
The perfervid attention with which the Arab and Islamic public sphere followed the progress of the flotilla bring aid to blockaded Gaza - with some observers recalling the days when "the Mediterranean Sea was full of Islamic fleets" - should gave given ample warning that passions were running unusually high.

All this, of course, makes for disastrous PR. Critics, and many uncommitted observers, will see only Israel's military spokesmen and women explaining how their commandos attacked a ship in international waters and were set upon by a bunch of crazed humanitarian relief volunteers.

Looking at the relative casualties - at least ten dead protestors and no Israeli fatalities that we know of - they will jump to conclusions. The story of the Gaza flotilla will be slotted into a longstanding narrative which satirises Israel for only using illegal phosphorous weapons over Gaza for illumination purposes, and for blowing up schools and U.N. emergency relief depots because there were Hamas terrorists using them for cover. The fact that all this was usually true does not always make it more plausible. But while these brickbats could not be avoided, the trap which the Israeli Navy sprang for itself certainly should have been.

It is no use, in this context, lamenting the hypocrisy of the critics. To be attacked by the Turks, who have killed much larger numbers of Kurds in recent times, may be rich. Hard to bear also are the structures of Press-TV and other apologists for Arab or Iranian dictators, none of whom have had anything to say about the ferocious crackdown following the stolen Persian election, or the brutal treatment of Iran's various minorities, including the Arabs of Khuzestan.

Some Israelis will also be biting their tongue at British and US condemnation, mindful of the many more unintended civilian casualties inflicted by their armed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. And while they may hardly be quaking in their boots at being reproved by the EU's Herman van Rompuy, and the European Parliament, it is still something they could do without. Especially because it could have been avoided through less cack-handed tactics, simply by blocking the path of the boat in question and forcing it to prove that it was not carrying weapons or to turn back.

It is a classic example of the reluctance to deploy adequate force at an early stage and then being forced into using it later on under adverse circumstances. Israeli official sources have admitted as much themselves.

There is another problem. This is the third time in a row that the Israelis are widely perceived to have received a bloody nose. First, Israel's incursion into southern Lebanon in 2006 was generally believed to have failed, even if the political result of that conflict was to make it very difficult for Hezbollah to launch further attacks on northern Israel. Then in late 2008, early 2009, Hamas seemed to stalemate the Israeli incursion into Gaza, even if the offending rocket attacks have largely ceased since then. And now the Gaza Flotilla incident, which was indeed an unrelieved fiasco, leaving Israel whining that their elite commandos had been beaten up by peace protestors.

This has exposed its armed forces to something even more deadly than hatred: ridicule. One way or the other, the impression has been given that Israel is falling behind militarily. This will only embolden its enemies, as recent rhetoric has shown.

More to the point, the fundamental threat facing the existence of Israel remains unresolved, and completely ignored by most critics of Israel's action on the high seas. At least two powerful Middle Eastern States, Iran and Syria, remain leagued for her destruction; the former is probably on the verge of acquiring a nuclear bomb. Together with their Hamas allies in Gaza, and Hezbollah in Lebanon they effectively encircle Israel north and south.

The descent on the "peace" ship was not intended to humiliate Palestinians or anyone else, but to prevent the secret smuggling of weapons which will be used to attack not only Israeli soldiers but civilians living peacefully in southern Israel well within the internationally-recognised borders of the state. Hamas has been doing so, and has only been able to do so, moreover, after Israel withdrew from Gaza. Until the international community comes up with a viable plan to prevent this from happening - one which does not simply rely on unilateral Israeli concessions - the containment of Gaza will have to be maintained and Israel will continue to make mistakes.

The author thanks Charlie Laderman and Ilya Berkovich for comments on an earlier draft of this piece.

Dr Brendan Simms is Professor in the History of International Relations at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge and co-President of the Henry Jackson Society.


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I don't see how the outcome could have been any different, given that the Israelis were following established procedure in boarding a ship in international waters. This was never about aid, they were a bunch of Islamofascists surrounded by useful idiots who wanted to kill Jews. I hope the Israelis blow other ships trying to emulate the mission out of the water.

Posted by: Frugal Dougal at June 5, 2010 04:13 PM
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There's nothing ridiculous about Israel and its response to terrorism.
The Israelis hit back quickly and they hit back hard. Good luck to them.

Posted by: Robert Sharpe at June 7, 2010 03:11 PM
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