There’ll be another blunt IDF aphoristic title for the naval commando operation off the Gaza coast –“ Hammerhead”, “Flat Wave”, “Plug-Hole”. What there won’t be is any recognition that this was worse than many Israeli media sources had been predicting for days and there won’t be any success in convincing the world beyond, that this was anything more than another disproportionate Israeli use of force.
You don’t need to go far to get the latest “Israel Right or Wrong” opinion. If you happened to listen to BBC Radio N Ireland you’d have heard Gerry Lewis of Israel Radio calling me “naïve.” Why? Because I couldn’t see that the flotilla of 6 vessels that the Israeli Navy apprehended were a threat to Israel’s national security.
Now I’m not going to reprise all that Gerry said. Perhaps he was in a Bank Holiday traffic jam when he spoke and it was getting to him so he was getting more shrill and the interviewer – Seamus (well it was N. Ireland) – had to intervene. But Gerry ignored my comments. And they weren’t all critical of the Israeli Navy. In the days preceding all this, Israel made it abundantly clear what it expected of the flotilla and what it planned for it and its cargo and passengers.
One photo in Haaretz shows a voyaging peace seeker swathed in white with a beard wielding a large vicious knife – what kind of left-wing peace activist is he? YouTube clips with IDF titles claim to show a commando being attacked as he landed on a ship from a helicopter, another being beaten – there were plenty of tannoy announcements demanding passengers sit down and stay calm, why didn’t they?
Knives, sticks, catapults with marbles, none of these are the accoutrements of left-wing peace activists demonstrating their support for beleaguered Gazans. Rejecting commands and attacking commandos is not the usual response of peace activists along the West Bank separation fence, or at various well-known locations like Bilin. Indeed if you Google Bilin you’ll find a variety of stories and photos of demonstrations which included “shooting” – of tear gas and ‘rubber bullet’ plastic canisters.
What was the Israel Navy commandos response? Initially, according to a detailed article in YNet, which BICOM is circulating, ignorant of the above accoutrements and the refusal to obey orders, the article suggests the commando came armed with paintball guns. Yeah? On further research I discovered there is a new anti-riot gun that looks like a paintball weapon but actually fires lacerating pepper spray. Isn’t Google wonderful and isn’t mankind adept at finding ways of imposing law and order?
What shouldn’t have been and could have been?
What shouldn’t have been is the entry into Hamas and Palestinian mythology of their very own 21st century version of The Exodus 1947. That’s part of my treasured Zionist upbringing. Leon Uris’ highly over romanticised book “Exodus” describes the ship of the same name full of Jewish refugees from Europe after the Holocaust seeking to break the British naval blockade of the coast of Palestine and illegally land its human cargo in the Mandate controlled Promised Land. The elderly paddle steamer was apprehended by a British naval flotilla and boarded and in the ensuing violence meted out mostly by the British, three passengers were killed. So now Marmara has entered the annals of the Palestinian national struggle.
With this almost unpalatable synergy comes another question lurking at the back of my mind. Did anyone absorb the lessons of The Exodus and plan accordingly? For, back in the days, when news headlines from other parts of the world took an age to reach the West – remember newsreels? – at least the way Uris tells it, there was some quite cynical thinking about grabbing and holding headlines. So The Exodus passengers go on hunger strike and the planners are asked, “what if people die?” and they give the answer I imagine Hamas planners would have given about the flotilla, “it’ll keep us in the news”. Now before you start shouting how dare I suggest parallels between Gaza and the Holocaust, let me tell you that I’m not, and better Israelis than I have already done that more subtly – the late Tommy Lapid did it, describing an elderly Gazan woman photographed in an earlier Gazan scene of destruction, said she reminded him of his grandmother, a Holocaust victim. Some of the flotilla passengers were clearly not the run-of-the-mill humanitarian aid donors, and had alternative plans when the Israeli navy “disgorged naval commandos” as Seamus so graphically described it, onto the decks of the Miramar. They were not about to go quietly.
What could have been? There could have been another Prime Minister who wouldn’t use this ugly episode as an excuse to avoid another meeting with a US President who has been embarrassed by the Israeli administration, and reflects much of world opinion in being fed up with a rogue Israel, to want to push said Prime Minister into a peace process. Instead there could have been an Israeli leader ready to insist on his country’s future security and speak from the position of strength his armed forces assure him, enough to say that a genuine negotiated settlement is preferable to more war-war.
This government and this Israeli prime minister prey off weakness and not strength. And that weakness is dangerous because what it produces politically, beneath the Nacht und Nebel* with which it suffuses its public pronouncements, is stasis. Nothing extraordinary happens – its not extraordinary for Palestinians and their supporters to loose their lives. So the prime minister stays one more day on his seat. That he postponed his US visit is much more a reflection of his natural demeanour, which we saw in his last cadence, littered as it was with the careers of countless senior advisers. He simply trusts no one. So he trusts no one now to handle this debacle and he will make pronouncements in solid tones that signify nothing about it and that he thinks will be all it needs.
What’s perplexing is that whilst the loss of life is tragic, this is not a natural catastrophe, heaven forbid a plane crash with enormous loss of life. Normal states have well-rehearsed contingency plans which do not necessitate the personal presence of the national leader.
What is equally true is that the diplomatic fall out to this sorry mess is already affecting fragile relations with reliable friends. The new UK Foreign Secretary, a Conservative on whom friends of Gerry Lewis hoped they could rely, is appalled by what happened to the flotilla.
Since Gilad Shalit was kidnapped, since Hamas went to war with the PLO, since Gaza was besieged, since the war against Hezbollah in 2006, Israel has made no progress in any diplomatic initiative which must be the obvious concomitant of military power, the obvious route to resolving these issues – and always without sheathing the sword. Of course, what stasis produces is grossly more entangled than the status quo ante and it will not be easy to disentangle Israel and the Palestinians from this.
Israel’s right wing leaders have decided that the answer to the question “can Israel live by the sword” is Yes. The late Yitzhak Rabin looks positively angelic as compared with the men who succeeded him. He knew the answer was No; he could see the limits of power. And even in the short time he witnessed the benefits to Israel of that conclusion, Israelis tasted however unevenly and with all the growing antagonism from the Palestinian leadership of the day, a future.
It is said that the current Israeli government knows no red lines. It is also said that majorities of people are usually passive and that is often the consequence of fear. How many more predictably calamitous events are the Israeli nation ready to endure before they take back their country and draw the lines, not just in the sand, but on the map?
* Yesh T’guva is the Hebrew for the opposite of Ain Teguva – No Comment
*Nacht und Nebel is German for Night and Fog