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.

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