Monday, May 31, 2010

Winner: Radicals. Loser: Civilians

It's been a long Memorial Day. But first and foremost, thank you to the fallen and their families for their sacrifice, and thank you to those who serve in uniform.

In a tragic confrontation, IDF Navy commandos boarded 6 boats in international waters this morning. A violent confrontation broke out on the last boat, the Mavi Marmara, killing 10, injuring dozens, and leading to the wounded of 7 commandos, two of them seriously.

A legal question remains as to whether engaging the ships in international waters is justified under the doctrine of universal jurisdiction. Israeli lawyers filed a petition with the High Court on the issue, and the outcome remains to be seen. However, other than this issue, it appears the Navy generally acted with regards to the rules of engagement. Since no footage from either the IDF or the activists has surfaced showing the IDF opening fire, a ruling on the key issue of lethal engagement is impossible at this point.

What is clear is that the activists were clearly not peace activists. The IDF confiscated knives, pistols, pepper spray/mace, and metal poles used to brutally attack the commandos. Regardless of the legality of the ship's interception, the use of violent force against the commandoes was completely illegitimate and unacceptable. The kind of radicalism and ideological myopia demonstrated by some of the activists is a shameful representation of the generally peaceful pro-Palestinian camp.

What was also unacceptable is the negligence with which IDF naval troops were needlessly put in harm's way. Andrew Exum, fellow at the Center for a New American Security and former army officer in both Iraq and Afghanistan, concurs this morning on his blog. The government had a number of options short of ordering the boarding the ships, including:

1) Targeting the ships' engines and towing them to Ashdod
2) Sinking the ships and providing rafts to the passengers aboard.
3) Allowing the ships to arrive in Gaza quietly in order to not arouse the media firestorm which has now resulted.
4) Allowing the ships to arrive and tracking suspicious material to gain intelligence on the location of weapons stores.

It is my assessment based on the available information that the commandos had orders from the government to intercept and board the ships. Perhaps the decision to intercept in international waters was in order to preserve the security provided by darkness. By the time the boats entered Israeli waters, it would have been lighter and security of the commandos may have been jeopardized.

However, the government of Israel ultimately failed to advance its objective of denying political strength to Hamas and its allies. Legal or not, ten civilians were shot this morning. In the current international media climate, there is no way this situation could have ended in Israel's favor. The global protests organized in just hours after the raid speak to the detrimental effect this operation will have on Israel's international standing.

In the wake of the operation, the U.S. is likely to remain silent. Supporting Israel will draw the ire of the international community. Chastizing Israel will hurt it, which directly harms the U.S. as well. It is in the best interest of the United States to say nothing, esepcially considering the raids off the Somali coast that U.S. forces have conducted in recent months. President Obama has asked only for clarification on the incident, and thus far has issued no judgement. If his reponse is typical, he will send out floaters in the next few days, and repond to the way the press spins the floaters as his official response.

Turkey is likely to make a big fuss, but entirely for political reasons. Approximately 7 of the 10 people killed were Turkish, and the Turkish population is generally antagonistic to Israeli occupation of the West Bank. However, it is Turkey's stated foreign policy to serve as a mediator in the Middle East. While Turkey will exaggerate the impact of the crisis now, its ultimate aim is to gain the trust of the Arab world in order to be seen as a neutral arbiter of any final status agreement. But this ultimately requires Israel's assent as well, so while the situation between Israel and Turkey is bad, this is likely to be the nadir of relations over the next few years.

For now, Israel will defend its use of force. However, all sides in this crisis are operating in a climate of fear. The tens of thousands of trip to Turkey from Israel that now have been cancelled are a clear demonstration of this point. The question is whether Israelis will see the political impact of this operation as over the line. Will they see the operation as a needless waste of political capital with Turkey, or a justified act regardless of cost?

Either way, kids in Sderot tonight are sleeping under threat of rocket fire. Again. And Gazan kids are sleeping malnourished and under the threat of an Israeli airstrike. Again. So cheer up. Despite the political firestorm on all sides, for the people on the ground, it's as if nothing has changed at all. Sleep tight.

Flotilla Intel Dump

Synopsis of Events

After a few days of delay, the Turkish-flagged Mavi Marmara and 5 other ships left Cyprus on Sunday May 30th, 2010 with humanitarian supplies en route to Gaza. Because of the ongoing naval blockade by Israel on the Gaza strip, the Israeli government made clear that the ships would not be allowed into Gaza but were welcome to land at Ashdod and transfer their supplies to Gaza via the land crossings.

At some point last night, the naval buffer zone, normally at 40 miles off the coast, was extended to 62 miles. This extension was widely unrecognized by the international community.

The Israeli Navy made contact with the flotilla around 4 A.M. local time on Monday May 31, 2010 and issued a verbal warning to change course for the Israeli port of Ashdod. The warnings, as expected, went unheeded.

The Navy then boarded 5 of the boats to inspect them for weapons. This occurred in international waters, at least 70 miles off the Israeli coast. It is unclear if at this point the Navy also took control of the ships to steer them away from the Gaza strip.

The Navy boarded the Mavi Marmara at 5 A.M. by having commandos rappell onto the ship from helicopters. The ship had roughly 700 passengers from 40 countries, and was reported to have been carrying 10,000 tons of humanitarian aid.

What happens next is disputed.

The IDF claims they attempted to apprehended two activists holding pistols. As the IDF soldiers were emptying the pistols, the activists are purported to have regained the pistols and opened fire. Jonathan Peled, minister-counselor at the Israeli embassy in Washington said the soldiers came aboard carrying paintball pistols, but were attacked with knives and metal bars. One naval commando was stabbed, prompting the soldiers to open up with live fire. IDF footage also shows captured knives and pepper spray or mace.

The Free Gaza Movement
, a group sponsoring the flotilla, claims that the IDF entered the ship and opened fire on the passengers on the ship, all of whom were civilians.

Video Analysis

Footage shows the use of force by both IDF soldiers and activists. In the aftermath of the violence, at least 10 activists are killed (most of them Turkish), and 7 Israeli commandos wounded. In this video, the soldiers appear to engage with a weapon at 1:03. The IDF press office does not highlight this in the video, so I have done so below using a red circle.

The weapon appears to be a paintball gun like the one pictured below:

No currently released footage shows the point at which the IDF used lethal force against the activists. Nor does any footage show the very beginning of the raid. When this video begins, the rappel line has already been lowered.

Israeli reporters on board the vessel have been prohibited from reporting by the IDF military censor, so this footage is unlikely to emerge soon, if ever.

The ship is currently in port at Ashdod, and its passengers will be either voluntarily deported or arrested. The IDF soldiers are being asked to identify those who responded violently to them, and those passengers will be put on trial in Israel. At least 32 passengers have been taken to a prison in Beer Sheva. 16 have refused to identify themselves. 25 activists have agreed to voluntary deportation.

International Impact

Turkey recalled its envoy to Israel and summoned the Israeli envoy to Turkey. Turkey warns the raid could affect bilateral relations.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague cautioned Israel to exercise restraint. He deplored the loss of life and called for an easing of the Gaza siege.

Greece has withdrawn from a joint military exercise with Israel.

Iran has said the raid will lead to the country's demise.

Egypt summoned the Israeli ambassador.

France, Ireland, Greece, and Sweden
have summoned their Israeli ambassadors.

The Arab League has called the raid a "crime." The Arab league will convene to discuss the issue at Syria's request.

PA President Mahmoud Abbas called it a "massacre."

Pakistani Prime Minister Syed Yusuf Raza Gilani, in a statement, "strongly condemned" what he called an "assault" by the Israeli military on the flotilla.

Protests occured in Istanbul, Ankara, London, Lahore, Tripoli, Paris, Athens, Thessoloniki, Refugee camps in Lebanon, Beirut, Amman, Tehran, Sarajevo, Geneva, Cairo, Tel Aviv, Washington D.C., and New York.

The United States' deputy press secretary Bill Burton said, "The United States deeply regrets the loss of life and injuries sustained and is currently working to understand the circumstances surrounding this tragedy." Israeli PM Benyamin Netanyahu has cancelled his trip to the US this week, and departed Canada this morning to return to Israel.

The UN Security Council is holding an emergency session in which it called for an investigation, and urged Israel to lift the siege on Gaza.

Additionally, Israeli lawyers Avigdor Feldman, Yiftah Cohen, Itamar Mann and Omer Shatz have petitioned the Israeli High Court of Justice, alleging that the Israeli government violated the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Footage Roundup

All of the following videos contain footage of this morning's raid on the Mavi Marmara, in which at least 10 civilians were killed, and 7 Israeli commandos wounded. The videos are not unbiased but they all show primary source footage. Take all of them with a grain of salt. (contains a photo of an activist holding a knife).

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The IDF Gets it Right

Haaretz outlines new rules of engagement (ROE) for the IDF in civilian areas. This is part of a trend of tighteing the ROE in the wake of Operation Cast Lead. It is also another example of how despite complex politics, the IDF remains pragmatic and focused on achieving missions. Some of the highlights of the new ROE include:

1) A focus on evacuating civilians from combat areas. This is an important shift, and commanders are now instructed to fire warning shots in order to disperse civilians. Ideally, the most successful evacuations would be before the troops arrive altogether, as the U.S. did in Amara, Iraq for example. And warning shots that are composed of white phosphorous should be a definite no-no. But attempts to clear civilians before combat are always a good thing.

2) Use of lower impact weapons. The IDF took flack in Operation Cast Lead for shooting sabot shells at a UN school where Hamas insurgents had been engaging the IDF. Lower impact, higher accuracy weapons will ultimately reduce civilian casualties and mitigate political damage from IDF operations.

3) The article claims "The IDF realized following the Gaza offensive that due to the Strip's size, civilians have fewer places to run to." If true, this indicates that the IDF is starting to understand that trying to protect civilians (as Israel clearly did in Cast Lead with flyers and cell phone messages) is not the same as actually protecting them. This is an impressive realization by the IDF, especially in an Israeli political climate where respect for Palestinian rights is not at a particular high.

I wish more of the principles of counter-insurgency had been incorporated into these rules but it would be unrealistic for the IDF to assume it would get the kind of resources necessary for COIN. Still, these rules of engagement changes are important, and should restore some faith in the IDF's ability to understand that human rights protection is a security strategy. The changes are commendable.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Existential Threat of the Day: Qatari Development

UPDATE: Haaretz concurs.

The Israeli government has rejected an offer by Qatar to resume diplomatic relations severed in Operation Cast Lead back in late 2008/early 2009. The reason why? Qatar's offer was dependent on being able to carry out a series of reconstruction projects in the Gaza strip. So in exchange for diplomatic ties with a more moderate Arab state, the price for Israel would be the free reconstruction of buildings - that Israel would have otherwise had to pay for anyway. Qatar would also be importing concrete which, if stolen, could be used to make weapons which would harm Israel. But Qatar has an interest in not letting this happen, especially considering that its relationship with Egypt, the center of the Arab world, would be at stake if it were to be seen as aiding Hamas. And Israel could have made the offer dependent (and reasonably so) on sufficient guarantees of security rather than rejecting it outright.

Perhaps the more important factor for Israel is that letting Qatar in would be seen as projecting weakness, and harming the so-called efficacy of the siege on Gaza. But the fact that Israel's current leadership is willing to jeopardize a chance for normalization in the region to support an ineffective and inhumane siege on Gaza, is cause for concern. The benefits of normalization were tangible enough that Israel and Qatar shared diplomatic relations for 12 years (1996 - 2008). Throwing this relationship away to support a siege that isn't working is an unequivocally poor policy choice.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Settler Violence and COIN

Today's Haaretz has an article quoting Maj. Gen. Avi Mizrachi as saying that settler violence could spark a violent Palestinian response. This reaffirms two very important points.

Firstly, independent of the political establishment, the IDF is a generally pragmatic organization. It sees threats as they are, even if the tools at their disposal to deal with those threats are not necessarily available. Regardless of the confidence of the Israeli government, these latest comments indicate that the IDF understands that settlements are becoming a security liability for Israel. This bodes well for a security body which will be tasked with responding to growingly complex threats in the future.

Secondly, it illustrates the importance of counterinsurgency vis-a-vis radical settlers. As Maj. Gen. Mizrachi correctly states, most settlers are pretty reasonable people. But if the government continues to fail to properly compensate those uprooted from Gaza in 2005, it shouldn't be suprised if the moderate settler response to the mosque attack is less than outraged. If the government wishes to successfully stop the "price tag" attacks, it's a good idea for them to reach out to the moderate center of the settler movement rather than pandering to the radical right-wing. Otherwise, it could easily be drawn into a violent conflict between the settlers and the Palestinians. The settlers are unlikely to distinguish between civilians and armed personnel. Palestinian militants are unlikely to do the same.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Update: Goldstone Smearers

Hagai el-Ad concurs in today's Haaretz:

"At the end of the day, after Goldstone is finally exorcised as a witch and Israel's human rights NGOs shut down, what then? Won't accountability still be a cornerstone of the rule of law? Putting the diversions aside for a moment - and the author is appreciative of how difficult that is, given the government's urge to obsess on nothing but diversions - are we not still left with alarming suspicions, partial information, and a very real need for a credible, independent investigation into Cast Lead?"

(Full article)

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Goldstone Smearers: Knock it off. Seriously.

Larry Derfner's Op-ed in the Jerusalem Post today is a reaffirmation of my confidence in the Israeli people to detect BS. Derfner is fair, and does not shy away from questions about Goldstone's record. But he is correct that Judge Goldstone's record in apartheid South Africa is completely unrelated to the findings of the Goldstone report.

This kind of guilt-by-association is the bane of democratic discourse and is abhorrent nonsense. The fact that some on the pro-Israel right have stooped to the level of smokescreens and smears is not only ill-advised strategically, it is pathetic. They despise Israel's enemies for smearing Israel's name, but creating smears of their own demonstrates to the world that Israel's supporters are no better. They would rather find any excuse to sling mud than to actually make progress. No wonder the Obama administration doesn't take their views seriously.

The old guard of the pro-Israel camp is stunningly immature, juvenile, and is becoming increasingly irrelevant with this kind of mishegas. Their delusional strategy is harming Israel's ability to progress and learn from the mistakes of Operation Cast Lead. It is preventing solutions for the families in Sderot and Ashkelon who will spend tonight under threat of rocket attack. Again. Ad matai?

This small radical minority is making both Israel and the Jewish community look petty and ashamed of Israel's Cast Lead record. The smear campaign is bad for Israel, and bad for global Jewry.

The better strategy would be to invest time and energy on finding lessons learned from Cast Lead. Israel should undertake an internal investigation of Operation Cast lead, as it did for the Lebanon War in 2006, and the 2nd Intifada. The State of Israel ought to be the global leader in counter-insurgency, yet it falls far behind the United States and many of its European allies. Those who would rather engage in petty radicalism are preventing Israel from achieving its rightful and natural place as a thought leader on issues of humane counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency. And destroying what little credibility Israel had left in the process.

So Goldstone smearers: Knock it off. Seriously.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

U.S. Goes to Bat for Israel on Iran at the U.N.

This week the UN is meeting on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The U.S. and the other four permanent members of the security council are supporting the call for a nuclear-free Middle East in an attempt to put pressure on Iran vis-a-vis its nuclear program.

Israel has held a policy of ambiguity towards its weapons program. It is not a member of the NPT and therefore is not in violation of any obligations. Iran is a member of the NPT and is considered to be "in violation" of the treaty by the United States. This situation is considered to be slightly hypocritical by other states, who see an NPT member which admits it has nuclear capabilities being treated with more scruticy than a non-NPT member which is ambiguous about its capabilities. Israel has said it would only consider becoming party to the treaty under an Israeli-Arab peace agreement, a position supported by the U.S.

Israel has a very fine line to walk between supporting efforts to condemn Iran's nuclear program and facing criticism for its own policies. But the restarting of peace talks coincides nicely with a number of prominent U.S. officials (Clinton, Biden, Obama) condemning Iran's nuclear program and advocating for a major Israeli security interest. Regardless of feelings towards Israel, the Obama administration has successfully created a coalition of states united against Iran. The conference is likely to put significant pressure on the Iranian regime internally, as frustration grows over increasing economic woes and isolation.

For Israel, it indicates that despite small political disagreements, the U.S. and Israel are very much aligned on matters of defense.