Israel: Flotilla Clashes are a “Serious PR Disaster”

Severe clashes between flotilla members and IDF forces have been highlighted in news organizations and blogs around the world. Massive protests are taking place, calling for justice and for action to be taken against Israel. The exact turn of events is still blurry. What happened at the break of dawn, 60 miles from the Israel coast, as the IDF descended on the flotilla boats?

Many posts paint the following image: “IDF soldiers descend on activist aid boat killing 9 and wounding many.” While these words are nominally true, the statement is overly simplified and lacking context. In the following post I hope to provide context and highlight a diverse set of perspectives from Israeli local media and the Hebrew blogosphere. I hope that you will learn that the outcomes are certainly not black and white; that a day like this actually tears Israeli society apart.

The dire outcomes of today's operation will leave a dark stain on Israel's future. It might be remembered as the day that Israel witnessed its biggest PR disaster yet. It will also be remembered as the day in which Israel-Turkey relationship took yet another hit, where Turkey withdrew its ambassador to Israel, called for an emergency UN session and even flights between Tel-Aviv and Istanbul effectively halted.

So what exactly happened?

The Operation

The Flotilla expedition left for Gaza a couple of days ago. Israel continuously offered to transfer the goods via land through the Israeli port of Ashdod. After repeated declines, Israel forces decided to intercept the flotilla before it comes any closer to the Gaza shore. As IDF soldiers descend onto the ship, they are ‘attacked with clubs and long knives‘ and come close to a lynch by the mob of passengers. Watch this hair-raising documentation of the soldiers being beaten as they descend onto the boat's rooftop:

As the fighting intensified, IDF officials claim there was little choice but to use live ammunition. Here's a translation of the complete series of events described by Ron Ben Yishai, and Israeli journalist who was present on one of the IDF boats during the operation:

The original plan was to disembark on the top deck, and from there rush to the vessel’s bridge and order the Marmara’s captain to stop.

Officials estimated that passengers will show slight resistance, and possibly minor violence; for that reason, the operation’s commander decided to bring the helicopter directly above the top deck. The first rope that soldiers used in order to descend down to the ship was wrested away by activists, most of them Turks, and tied to an antenna with the hopes of bringing the chopper down.

Navy commandos slid down to the vessel one by one, yet then the unexpected occurred: The passengers that awaited them on the deck pulled out bats, clubs, and slingshots with glass marbles, assaulting each soldier as he disembarked. The fighters were nabbed one by one and were beaten up badly, yet they attempted to fight back.
However, to their misfortune, they were only equipped with paintball rifles used to disperse minor protests, such as the ones held in Bilin. The paintballs obviously made no impression on the activists, who kept on beating the troops up and even attempted to wrest away their weapons.

One soldier who came to the aid of a comrade was captured by the rioters and sustained severe blows. The commandos were equipped with handguns but were told they should only use them in the face of life-threatening situations. When they came down from the chopper, they kept on shouting to each other “don’t shoot, don’t shoot,” even though they sustained numerous blows.

The planned rush towards the vessel’s bridge became impossible, even when a second chopper was brought in with another crew of soldiers. The forces hurled stun grenades, yet the rioters on the top deck, whose number swelled up to 30 by that time, kept on beating up about 30 commandos who kept gliding their way one by one from the helicopter. At one point, the attackers nabbed one commando, wrested away his handgun, and threw him down from the top deck to the lower deck, 30 feet below. The soldier sustained a serious head wound and lost his consciousness.

Only after this injury did IDF troops ask for permission to use live fire. The commander approved it. The soldiers pulled out their handguns and started shooting at the rioters’ legs, a move that ultimately neutralized them. Meanwhile, the rioters started to fire back at the commandos.

During the commotion, another commando was stabbed with a knife. In a later search aboard the Marmara, soldiers found caches of bats, clubs, knives, and slingshots used by the rioters ahead of the IDF takeover. It appeared the activists were well prepared for a fight. Only after a 30-minute shootout and brutal assaults using clubs and knifes did commandoes manage to reach the bridge and take over the Marmara.

It appears that the error in planning the operation was the estimate that passengers were indeed political activists and members of humanitarian groups who seek a political provocation, but would not resort to brutal violence. The soldiers thought they will encounter Bilin-style violence; instead, they got Bangkok. The forces that disembarked from the helicopters were few; just dozens of troops – not enough to contend with the large group awaiting them.

The second error was that commanders did not address seriously enough the fact that a group of men were expecting the soldiers on the top deck. Had they addressed this more seriously, they may have hurled tear-gas grenades and smoke grenades from the helicopter to create a screen that would have enabled them to carry out their mission, without the fighters falling right into the hands of the rioters.

The outcome

Nine of the flotilla passengers were killed and several wounded on both sides. Intense international criticism towards Israel around the world as well as internally. Israel secures control over all boats and directs them to the port of Ashdod, where they undergo inspection and the passengers are interrogated before being banished back to their country of origin.

Provocation not Humanitarian

Many in Israel believe that the flotilla succeeded in luring Israel into yet another disastrous PR trap. A well planned provocative move, aimed at rallying worldwide support against Israel. In an interview with the Turkish television channel, Tzipi Livni says:

There was a need to stop these ships from reaching Gaza, because it was not a humanitarian mission. I'd like to remind everybody that Israel offered to transfer all the goods through land.
A few ships decided to stop and to transfer the humanitarian goods, and only one ship decided to continue. It brings me to an understanding that it was all about provocation and the need to have this as propaganda and not as a humanitarian aid mission.

Danny Carmon, from the Israel envoy to the United Nations, defends IDF's actions by questioning the motives at play:

“What kind of peace activist would insist to bypass the UN, Red Cross and other well known international organizations? What kind of peace activists carry knives, bats and other weapons to attack soldiers? The answer is clear. There are NOT peace activists!”

On her Facebook page Mihal Ratner posts images of weapons found on board the Marmara:

She adds:

On board of the vessels are so called Peaceful political activists. The Mavi Marmara had the most peaceful activists on it: They brought, on top of humanitarian aid of course, and cement (that was used before to build bunkers and therefore banned), weapons such as knives, metal rods, firebombs, sling shots, water hoses, stun grenades, saws, and more, to attack soldiers who are there to legally enforce the blockade in international waters, and after repeated requests in the naval radio – that were all denied.

Ze'ev Goldstein describes the ways in which the Flotilla was meant to provoke, not provide humanitarian aid:

He who comes to provide humanitarian aid does not come armed for battle, but rather armed with bags of rice and wheat. It is clear that the flotilla was meant to provoke, since they were promised to deliver the goods by land.
Why? Their goal was to deliver the aid, not the delivery route.

Every other person would avoid delays and do anything possible to deliver the aid as fast as possible into Gaza. However these messengers of justice came armed for battle, trained and organized. They had no other intention other than creating a confrontation.

PR Disaster for Israel

While some support and others vehemently oppose the operation, the mass majority agrees that this has been a complete and utter PR failure for Israel at large. Failure to be the first to report what was going on and failure to react as the events were being covered around the world.

Youval Gazith discusses the many failed aspects of the operation:

Even the extreme right wing agrees that the operation was a terrible failure; read on rotter. The operation's primary focus was on PR. It was possible to prevent the boats from coming close to shore, stop them then haul them, without requiring contact with soldiers.

Intelligence failure – where was the mossad? You do not embark on such an operation without precise intelligence.
Operational failure – the IDF soldiers came out beaten and hurt, 10 killed, c'mon!
PR failure – in a world that lives and breathes realtime, releasing press material with a 12 hour delay is eternal! A Hebrew press conference for foreign press is a joke!
Leadership failure – our prime minister doesn't even bother broadcasting a message. The blame is passed between the political and military echelons…

Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff elaborate on the massive PR failure attributed with this operation:

Israel knew it was heading towards this confrontation from a comparatively inferior stance – photos of armed soldiers against protesters will never be well received. The decided answer was – attempt to disrupt broadcast from the boats, and simultaneously let invited journalists (local + international) on board one of the IDF ships provide reports, but only once they reach shore after the operation. Even their mobile phones were closed.

The plan failed miserably. The protesters and broadcast teams succeeded in uploading images and updates to the web. The journalists who came with the Israeli forces only later in the afternoon. The formal Israeli response came some five hours after the events. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs was exposed in its full weakness.

In an interview on Israeli TV, Dr. Guy Bechor talks about Turkey's role in supporting the flotilla:

This is not an International operation, but a Turkish one. Erdogan (Turkey's Prime Minister whose had a falling out with Israel since the Gaza bombings in January of '09) is taking Gaza as a tool to harm Israel and increase and support his own interests.
This is not a pro-Palestinian flotilla, but primarily an anti-Israeli one.
One of the boats was provided by the Turkish government. This is a country standing behind the flotilla, not an international flotilla.

He continues to describe a poster his group created which displayed ‘Erdogan’ equals ‘Ahmadinejad’. A similar poster was also used during a protest just outside the Turkish embassy in Tel-Aviv.

Criticism from within Israel

Heavy criticism about the operation came from within Israel. Multiple protest on university grounds, and outside the Tel Aviv military headquarters drew massive crowds. Shouting “Danger, danger, Government of war” and other slogans, people gathered to show their disgust with the current government's actions.

Lisa Goldman called out piracy, over Israel attacking in international waters:

And Roy Rotman, criticizing the IDF tactics :

It drives me crazy to think that after the decision for a military operation was made, they couldn't find a more intelligent way to operate. Good god, the IDF special unit was surprised to find resistance on a boat it was taking over on international water? Surprised that there were people who would try to hit its soldiers with bats? How idiotic do you have to be? What did the operation planners expect? That the soldiers be welcome with flowers and rice?
BTW, there's a certain paradox: if you were surprised by the resistance, this means you didn't expect it, hence you didn't really think that these would be boats carrying dangerous, armed terrorists; If you really thought that the situation was truly dangerous, how did you let them surprise you this way?

Next steps

We've covered the turn of events through the perspectives of local voices from the ground in Israel – The Freedom Flotilla: PR stunt or Humanitarian Act? – and Arab countries in the Middle East – Rage after Israel Attacks Gaza Bound Flotilla

Please continue to be active within our comments spaces, and keep providing additional perspectives.

Update: This post became the subject of a heated discussion on Twitter at the time of publication. We have summarized the debate here.


  • I’m really disappointed about this post. Not because I have a different opinion about the events, but because it’s not a “real” Global Voices post. You only find space to quote one single blogger. Are there no other voices you could feature? This is a traditional press review – not quite what I expect from GV.

  • This is an astonishingly misinformed article. The proposition that I keep seeing, pulled almost word for word from hasbara talking points, that this was some kind of ‘cunning trick’ to fiddle with Israel’s (apparently spotless? news to me) PR record is not just wrong, but offensive. It is probably the most narcissistic, ill-conceived, and abominably ignorant argument about the history of social struggles absolutely anywhere in the world to categorise an incident involving *tonnes and tonnes*–can I say this again?–TONNES–of humanitarian aid as an evil conspiracy to discredit world jewry. It is the most self-involved and weak-kneed ‘analysis’ you could possibly offer of the situation. I am beginning to think that would-be journalists should have mandatory classes on the history of social movements before they write anything at all.

    Even your opening sentence: severe clashes \between\…is laughable. What do you imagine happens, exactly, when one of the best-equipped militaries in the world, directly subsidised by the United States with billions a year, approaches your ship? Are you trying to argue that the activists on board were acting outside of a legitimate self-defense concern, considering Israel’s *scrupulously* documented human rights abuse record, in which it is not uncommon not only for IDF soldiers to expel, harass, and even kill Palestinians of all stripes, but to kill internationals as well? There is a reason one of the ships on the Flotilla was named the \Rachel Corrie\, although I suppose you did not feel that researching this kind of thing was necessary to write an article on the subject. Regardless, there is always a very real terror to seeing soldiers coming towards you with lethal intentions clearly within the realm of possibility, not to mention soldiers WITH SUCH A BAD TRACK RECORD.

    The fact that you need this argument to be brought up to answer it is a tragedy in and of itself. You should not have to look hard for any of this. It is all out there. Please understand that working for and contributing to an independent outlet like Global Voices should be precisely the thing that propels you to interrogate the status quo and the machinations of power, not to try and rationalise yet another escalation by a brutal military state engaging in what is almost universally recognised as the apartheid suppression of its Palestinian population. You can actually *do* that here, and you’re abdicating the burden of that responsibility to use that freedom of movement well for milktoast-foreign-policy-think-tank-content we can get anywhere else.

    It’s shameful–shameful, and most of all lazy.

    What do you suppose the coverage would be like if this was a ship headed for Iran and the ship had been boarded by Iranian military troops? Please, I’d like you to think about this. I’d like you to close your eyes, take a deep breath, and just paint the picture. Shouldn’t this tell you more about what’s happening than any of the mediocre commentary being circulated in most of the popular media right now, which you are merely regurgitating? I feel that it is petty for me and insulting to your intelligence (as callous as I’ve been thus far) to actually try to \prove\ this, since the implications are so drastically obvious as to make perfect fare for any bottom-of-the-barrel SNL skit, any day of the week, if they were even brave enough, that is. The disparities in coverage, reactions, and general sentiment (not to mention that other thing–actual foreign policy!) are real and they *MEAN* something important. Thinking about this would qualitatively change the tone of your analysis from the cognitive failure of a supposedly \objective\ account to a knowingly subjective and philosophically principled commitment to underprivileged narratives–something, again, the independent blogosphere exists to cultivate.

    And the tragedy of tragedies, by the way, is not that Israeli society is being \torn apart\, though this is certainly a tragedy on a number of registers. The tragedy is THE OCCUPATION, and if this is not a factor of your analysis (for example, the boats in 2008 were the first to visit Gaza SINCE ABOUT 1956, which speaks volumes, far more than this soundbite about the supposedly ‘three-year blockade’ of Gaza), then your post is not only cowardly, but inadequate.


    Only on the internet can I be this brutally honest and mean and believe that it is necessary in any way at all. I have tried to appeal to you morally and existentially (and in very forceful, accusatory tones given the duplicity/complicity I see at work here, which I believe must be contested when it crops up) more than on the basis of some kind of ‘rational’ argumentation (though I believe I peppered my post with this) because I believe that quibbling over numbers endlessly is precisely what hasbara, or let’s say ‘discourse’, even, does to you, and I believe there is something more pressing, more dire, and more ethically imperative about the state of things in Palestine and in the world in general that should shock your system, should make you quake in your boots, should pierce you personally as a human being despite your privilege, and realise that things are NOT AT ALL dandy in the universe, and furthermore that this is NOT a reason for nihilism, but on the contrary, it is the principle behind which we can base the most unfettered hope and optimism in the possibility for change, the very principle which demands our solidarity and commitment to justice DESPITE ALL, because the people of Gaza, of Palestine, are dying, and they need respectful and substantive help from the outside world to augment the work they already bravely do within the Occupied Territories. Let me repeat: THEY ARE DYING. If my comment is rejected here, so be it, it was probably out of line in some way or another and I’d rather not pick a fight with something I respect so much as Global Voices. But rest assured that I will circulate my comment elsewhere, as those of us in the Palestinian solidarity movement often do when our comments are turned down (oh how indignant they do make us feel!).

    Perhaps, in the end, I am merely tired of seeing this kind of material at a moment so incredibly dire, that I feel that something beyond the supposedly “neutral” tip-toeing of dialogue will never bring home. It took me a Palestinian friend and an Israeli looking me in the eyes with the deepest bags underneath them talking in cold and distant tones about the Occupation for me to wake up from my slumber, and this is an important moment of revelation, way more important than any previous ‘debate’ had ever done for me. I hope in my excess that I might do the same here.

    To sum up:

    This is not a ‘PR Stunt’, it is an unprecedented political and humanitarian crisis, and seeing it as anything less than that is to be willfully ignorant. I wonder if you’ll be one of the ones scratching your head when things get \really\ bad (as if they arent already) and Israel decides to put a hole in the Earth where Palestine once was. We can never let this happen, ever. While you equivocate, we will fight.

    ROCK THE BOAT–learn to swim!

  • Violence is violence , and is equally brutal , when Muslims are blowing up their fellow Muslim brothers, Ahmedys, Christans…or when Israel launching commando attacks on unarmed peaceful journalists, aid workers of different origins and religions…it is inhumane and unforgivable.

  • […] acque internazionali è avvenuto l’attacco notturno alla Freedom Flotilla di aiuti umanitari a Gaza – un pugno di marine che si sono calati con funi dagli elicotteri […]

  • @simoncolumbus I appreciate your feedback. You are right that some perspectives from this post focus on things highlighted in Israeli media outlets, but (1) there are certainly more than one links to bloggers in this post (2) the goal was to summarize Israeli responses and show the multitude of perspectives.
    There will be more voices featured in upcoming posts – can’t get everything in one single post. But please feel free to post links to important voices that we may have missed here.

  • Chris Marstall

    Gilad, thanks for engaging so thoughtfully on this and digging deep for different voices. It seems like a badly bungled operation from Israel’s perspective. I accept that the flotilla was doing all it could to provoke Israel, especially highlighted by their refusal to go through normal aid channels, which they would be able to monitor. I also accept Israel’s absolute right to defend itself decisively.

    It seems to me that what the IDF forgot was that this incident was primarily a drama being staged for pundits and bien pensants in Western capitals. I think if the IDF had done a better job of communicating to the world how the flotilla’s emphasis was essentially on escalation, Israel could have earned universal support for a more measured, slow-motion sea interdiction.

  • @Alex – I appreciate you sharing your perspectives here and for your vote of confidence in Global Voices. While your statement – ‘working for and contributing to an independent outlet like Global Voices should be precisely the thing that propels you to interrogate the status quo and the machinations of power..’ – is 100% true, its next part is questionable ‘not to try and rationalise yet another escalation by a brutal military’. Alex, this is in not my rationalization or my viewpoint, but an analysis and summary of the ‘Israeli stance’, during the day of these unfortunate events. As an author on Global Voices it is my duty to amplify voices and perspectives that are not projected through the mainstream media. In this case, the Israeli take on the series of events, even if published on Israeli newspapers, rarely made it out to International outlets. This is a summary of the events from the Israeli Point-of-view, and is important for those who haven’t been obsessing over the news.

    You claim that “It is the most self-involved and weak-kneed ‘analysis’ you could possibly offer of the situation” – yet there is no self-involvement here, and as little analysis as possible. The post is a summary, placing Israeli perspectives within the context of what happened. I understand that it is difficult for you to see the rationalization on the other side, probably hard to realize that IDF soldiers are not ruthless killers, that Israel’s plot is not to eradicate Gaza off the face of the map – but don’t demonize opinions from the other side because it makes you feel better about your cause. There are two sides to this conflict and many shades of grey.

    @Marstall – thanks for your comment.
    I agree that IDF fell right into that trap. Additionally little to no communication came out until many hours later. News that’s coming out now shows how the decision to go through with this operation was made by ehud barak and bibi – none of the other ministers even knew about it until news broke out. This is generating huge anger within the government and within Israel as a whole. Many calling for ehud barak to step down.

  • Yoram Lotan

    I understood from the news that all humanitarian supples that were on the ships were transferred today to Gaza via the land pass. All the supply filled up 25 trucks compare to 100 supply trucks that are crossing daily to Gaza. Most of the medicines on that ships were outdated!
    All this was a provocation by a radical extremist group from Turkey.
    The group of soldiers that were sent to take control of the ship were not prepared for such a violant attack which was planned beforehand. Imagine a group of 30 soldiers being attacked by about 400 “peace activists” who tried to lynch by using clubs, knives and fire arm that was taken from a soldier. The passengers on the Turkish ship many of them were not just innocent peace activists but huligans that planned all this in advance. The big mistake of Israel is that they did not see it with the intelligence and sent the soldiers with paint rifles backed by pistols to this trap. The end results were pity.

  • Since this was published today, I would like to correct your statement that nine flotilla activists were killed. Since yesterday, most media (including several Israeli sources) have said “at least 10”, and many estimates put the number closer to sixteen. I think it’s worth stating that the number is not yet confirmed.

  • A journalist from my country was on this ship too, and as His news channel was showing his recording of rally events before starting their trip from Turkey, he was clearly stating two things,,

    ” we did not know this is going to be this serious , and religious color is prominent in this gathering”

    This or any attack is not justified , but any humantarian aid with religious tilt is hurting the cause, and making things difficult for who purely work for people with all religions.

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