A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, May 31, 2010

The Raid

What a mess. I have been really busy with Memorial Day activities etc. and said I wouldn't post unless something happened. Well, obviously, Something Happened.

I know the Israeli government and Israel's good friends everywhere are defending the raid on the aid flotilla, and noting that activists on the ship were beating Israeli commandos with iron rods and so on. But when a high-profile effort (yes, a publicity stunt and propaganda ploy) ends with nine dead, some or all of them civilians, in international waters, Israel gets another black eye. It could also find itself subject to sanctions against its merchant marine, if I'm not mistaken.

Before I offer my early take please take note of Gideon Levy's column in tomorrow morning's Ha'aretz. He's tougher than I will be.

A week or so ago my wife and I watched the DVD of the movie Thirteen Days, the movie made a few years back about the Cuban Missile Crisis. I then reread a few chapters in some of the classic works on that crisis, which marked a very vivid experience of my early high school years. The US was claiming some of the same rights Israel is claiming — the right to a "quarantine" of Cuba in international waters, and inspection of ships crossing a quarantine line — but managed it without a shot being fired or a casualty suffered, save for the U-2 pilot shot down over Cuba. It was handled with finesse.

This was not. I don't know what the rules of engagement were — did the Israelis use traditional naval challenges like a shot across the bow before trying to board from a helicopter? — but the tactics seem closer to what you'd use to retake a ship held by Somali pirates than an international civilian mission. And since they'd insisted they would enforce their blockade of Gaza, why not wait until the flotilla reached territorial waters? Enforcing a blockade in international waters is real dicy in international law. It's one reason why the US called its blockade of Cuba in 1962 a "quarantine," since "blockade" would have been an act of war, and in the US Civil War the Union Blockade of the Confederacy was portrayed by Lincoln as the US "closing" its own ports, not as a blockade of a state (which would have recognized the Confederacy).

I'd also like to know who was in charge. The fact that Netanyahu had to cancel his visit to Washington makes me think he didn't expect this result. Was it the Defense Minister (Ehud Barak), the IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, Navy Commander Vice Admiral Eliezer Marom (who's a quarter Chinese, as I've noted before), or the commander on the scene, who chose the tactics? (And of course, given the mess it's created, somebody may take the fall, but that may not tell us who really made the call.) The Navy is the junior service in the IDF, and its experience is limited. Perhaps that's part of this, but if so, Israel might do well to admit it screwed up.

Israel is scrambling to defend the results, but diplomatically this is a disaster. Militarily it accomplished nothing that I can see. From a PR point of view, well, what can I say?

Netanyahu, so far, seems to be hanging tough and defending everything. I think it would have been better for him (and I'm sure it would have been better for Israel) if he'd flown home announcing he was going to find out who was responsible for this disaster. But he didn't.

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