Friday, June 11, 2010

The Mavi Marmara Mistake

My world is full to bursting with the doings and demands of one of the IDF's most elite units. So when the rest of the world turned their attention recently to one of our sister units, Israel's naval commandos, I felt a certain level of undesired empathy. With all the confusion of what exactly took place on May 31, when Israeli naval commandos stormed the decks of six ships headed toward Gaza with humanitarian supplies, I also feel necessary to add my own few cents.

From what I gather, the basic story is as follows:

This summer a team of international, largely Turkish, pro-Palestinian activists organized a flotilla of ships to carry humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip, a territory Israel and Egypt have placed under blockade since the radical Hamas group seized power in Gaza in June 2007. While Israel supplies humanitarian goods to Gaza, the blockade is intended to prevent Hamas from obtaining weapons like the rockets that continue to be fired on Israeli communities from Gaza. The flotilla was designed to call attention to the blockade, shaming Israel into opening Gaza's borders. As the boats approached Gaza in late May, Israel communicated they would defend the naval blockade and suggested the humanitarian goods be sent to Gaza through the Israeli port of Ashdod. When the activists refused, Israeli naval commandos boarded the six boats. Five of the boats were seized with no loss of life. Fighting broke out on the largest boat, the Mavi Marmara, leading to the death of nine activists and dozens injured on both sides. While the humanitarian supplies were then unloaded in Ashdod and sent to Gaza, Israel was heavily criticized by governments and mass demonstrations throughout Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere.

Exactly what happened on board the Mavi Marmara, why the operation did not proceed as smoothly as it did on the other boats, remains mired in controversy. As an Israeli soldier, serving in a similar unit to the soldiers who carried out the mission in late May, I know first hand that the naval commandos and their officers are not brainless stormtroopers. I have heard that the commandos boarded the boats with paint-guns, with hand guns holstered and only to be used as a last resort. The special forces soldiers I know would not indiscriminately fire into a crowd or eagerly fire upon political activists. But they would fight to defend their peers, especially as I have read when some of their fellow soldiers were captured or otherwise threatened by gangs of violent activists.

So much for my personal perspective. My real issue with the operation is that it was a mistake from the beginning. The activists were looking to shame Israel. They came to instigate. Sending soldiers on board, even with clear orders to refrain from firing unless absolutely necessary, was providing the activists with the opportunity they craved. Of course some of the activists seized their chance to create a riot! The Israeli response should have been based on how can we best achieve our objectives- maintaining the legitimacy of the Gaza blockade and avoiding a media firestorm- and how we can best ensure that our opponents' objectives- shaming Israel and delegitimatizing the blockade- are not achieved. The fact that five of the six boats were taken without casualties suggests the commando operation had some technical sophistication. Nonetheless, the risk was too high that our opponents would stand to gain by sending armed soldiers on board. As committed as I am to becoming as skilled a soldier as I can be, I recognize that my services will not always be most effective to the dangers my state confronts. Israel leaders failed in that regard, failed to craft a more skilled response that would have ensured our opponents did not triumph in this tragic confrontation.

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