What a long, strange trip it’s been…

In Politics on June 3, 2010 by Filmosaur Tagged: , ,

The kabuki dance of the Freedom Flotilla and the Israeli government has played out largely as expected, with Israel taking the hard line that the pro-Palestinian activists behind the attempted breach of the blockade of Gaza counted on. In fact, the killing of nine of the activists following a confrontation aboard the Mavi Marmara ferry gave the activists greater results that they could have hoped for; only sinking the ship would have done more to diplomatically isolate the Israelis.

One must question the events that occurred aboard the ferry as the Israelis boarded it. The video thus far released is inconclusive as to how and when escalation began and who was initially responsible, but it is clear that it was not a one-sided affair. Activists were directly engaged in close fighting with Israeli commandos until such time as the latter gained control of the situation. Pro-Palestinian claims that the Israelis began firing from helicopters before they landed on the ship are difficult to accept inasmuch as such action was not duplicated on the other ships in the flotilla, all of which were boarded peacefully. If we thus operate on the premise that the confrontation began after the boarding operation began, it seems quite reasonable to suggest that the activists were responsible for its outbreak once we consider the nature of the goals of both sides. Knowing that any outcome which would draw international attention would serve their opponents’ aims, the Israelis would have wanted to resolve the situation in as low-key a manner as possible; initiating combat makes little sense, especially in such an ambiguous set of circumstances where it would be difficult to prove necessity. For the activists, however, efforts to provoke a violent Israeli response are completely consistent with their intended purpose. Outnumbered commandos rappelling from helicopters and set upon from all sides would have had very few options: defend themselves or surrender. Withdrawal was not an option, due to the nature of the insertion, nor was passive defense. Once attacked by a multitude of activists, even if armed only with improvised weapons like clubs and chairs, the commandos were placed in a situation that made the use of deadly force a very likely outcome.

Reports that the Israelis did not expect such resistance suggest that planning for this operation failed to consider the dominance of strategic versus tactical success in assessing results. Suggestions to the contrary notwithstanding, the Israelis appear to have attempted to use minimal tactical force (small patrol craft, helicopters, commandos) rather than a full-scale effort employing major naval units in direct boarding operations. This makes a degree of sense if one assumes there will be no violence; if the activists had remained entirely peaceful before the full array of Israeli naval might, Israel would have given the impression of enormous overkill. Given that it already has a reputation of military heavy-handedness, this is something its government would seek to avoid. However, this sort of best-case tactical assumption takes little account of the strategic goals of the activists.

Rather than offer them an opportunity to exploit the situation further, Israel would have been far better served by taking the initiative away from the activists by bringing to bear so much potential force in the boarding operation that any sort of active resistance would have been both suicidal and easily halted. Consider the possibilities offered in such an alternative scenario: boarding from ships, the Israelis would have employed larger numbers of troops more quickly and with better options, including less than deadly force support from naval vessels (water cannon, tear gas, stun grenades) and the possibility of egress if the situation became uncontrollable. Had the activists attempted the only possible effective counter to such an operation – ramming – the Israelis would be able to point to this act of aggression as reasonable justification for their subsequent actions.

In situations where force may be expected to come into play, it is almost never a good idea to prepare only the minimum considered necessary, particularly in circumstances where failure might result in consequences far beyond the immediate tactical situation. This is not to say that such force should necessarily be employed, but the possibility of doing so is critically important if the widest array of options for controlling the situation is to be maintained. For as often as Israel has been criticized for using excessive force, in this case the pendulum swung too far in the other direction. The odyssey of the Freedom Flotilla demonstrated that Israel still has not developed a clear understanding of the strategic consequences of tactical operations.

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