Israel got suckered, the same way it gets suckered over and over. It walks into situations where it will inevitably come out looking like a bully, arouses worldwide anger and then gets indignant when it’s condemned. It’s like watching Charlie Brown charge the football, knowing that Lucy will snatch it away as she always does.
Here’s how Haaretz intelligence maven Yossi Melman summed it up:
Time and again, Israel tries to prove that what can’t be solved by force can be solved by more force. Over and over, the policies of force fail. The problem is that with each failure, the part of the world in which we would like to belong is losing patience with us.
As for the bloodshed at sea, the verdict isn’t so clear cut, and it’s important to draw a clear line between the boneheaded thinking of the Israeli government that walked into this situation and the actions of the Israeli troops who were sent into action. Israel had made it plain that it intended to stop the convoy by force if necessary, which is how naval blockades work for better or (mostly) worse, so the passengers had a pretty good idea of what to expect. On the other hand, the convoy had presented itself as a humanitarian mission of peace activists, suggesting that the Israeli boarding party could expect to find the passengers holding hands and singing “We Shall Overcome.” Opening fire would be senseless. That, of course, is the scenario that’s captured the world’s imagination and ire.
But that’s not how it turned out. The Israeli commandos came rappelling down from a helicopter one by one and were greeted with knives and iron bars. In case you’ve missed it, here’s what it looked like:
You could call that lots of things, but nonviolent resistance and peace activism don’t spring to mind. Gandhi and King taught that you take the blows of the oppressor and never fight back, and by your moral example you awaken the humanity of the other side. They never said anything about whacking the crap out of them.
Yediot Ahronot military columnist Ron Ben-Yishai wrote a blow-by-blow from the troops’ perspective.
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… The Navy commandos were prepared to mostly encounter political activists seeking to hold a protest, rather than trained street fighters. The soldiers were told they were to verbally convince activists who offer resistance to give up, and only then use paintballs. They were permitted to use their handguns only under extreme circumstances… 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 Flotilla 13 troops ask for permission to use live fire. The commander approved it: You can go ahead and fire. 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…
Haaretz military writer Amos Harel, summarizing the action as part of a larger news analysis, captures one telling detail that no one else got: You can’t come down shooting if you’re rappelling down from a helicopter.
When they descended from their ropes onto the decks, they found themselves amid a violent mob. Sliding down a cable is done wearing asbestos gloves, which make it impossible to operate a weapon. Some soldiers were armed only with paintball rifles. While they wrestled with the protesters, at least two pistols were snatched from them. The out-numbered commandos were at risk of having their comrades lynched, and opened fire.
The boat people say the Israelis opened fire immediately and indiscriminately. As Chico Marx once said, Who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).