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.

29 comments

  • Chuck Anderson

    I’ve been seeing on the internet that President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela has offered to deploy Venezuelan Marines onboard the ships of the Gaza flotillas, to act as a deterrent (and if necessary to defend against) any further boarding attempts by Israeli Navy commandos, and he has also offered to deploy Venezuelan military forces to the border areas of Arab countries bordering Israel. (It seems that he’s taking his anti-Israeli alliance up a notch by offering to help his allies confront Israel militarily.)
    I guess that this isn’t without precedent, as Fidel Castro sent Cuban forces to Angola where they were involved in actual combat operations.

    What would be the implications if Venezuelan and Israeli forces clash on these ships in international waters?

  • […] 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 […]

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