Like most naval skirmishes, the battle 40 miles off the Gaza ends somewhere back on land between Jerusalem, Washington, and Ankara. Up to 16 dead activists have sped up the confrontation's rapid evolution out of the sea and across the world. It probably can’t be asked enough - why?
Why would Israel draw such massive negative publicity to itself right before sending Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Washington?
Considering that the “Freedom Flotilla” set sail May 10th and was in planning for months, its only possible political target is raising awareness during indirect negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Otherwise Free Gaza was just aiming for a June D-Day. They couldn’t have known about Netanyahu’s Tuesday meeting with President Barack Obama, scheduled last week.
But Obama certainly knew of the flotilla before inviting Netanyahu, who in turn knew when he accepted. They were primed to overshadow the flotilla - so why create an even bigger distraction that could ultimately force Netanyahu to cancel his trip? Hostile environment or not, Israel’s thinking is hard to process.
Al Jazeera’s Ayman Mohyeldin reports from Jerusalem, "All the images being shown from the activists on board those ships show clearly that they were civilians and peaceful in nature, with medical supplies on board. So it will surprise many in the international community to learn what could have possibly led to this type of confrontation.”
One Israeli minister, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, has even issued a short statement: "The images are certainly not pleasant. I can only voice regret at all the fatalities.” At least one woman, said to be Muslim and wearing a hijab, was seen carried off on a bloody stretcher.
“How could the Israeli military attack civilians like this?" said Greta Berlin, a flotilla spokeswoman who phoned in from the melee. "Do they think that because they can attack Palestinians indiscriminately they can attack anyone?”
Now we aren’t naive. Every indication is that the flotilla ignored warnings from Israeli warships before being stormed by IDF commandos repelling from helicopters. Some activists were bound to come armed and present a threat; the Israeli army said its troops were assaulted with axes and knives. We also realize if Israel allowed one convoy through it could expect thousands to break Gaza’s siege from the ocean.
A clash seemed inevitable.
But even more certain is that Free Gaza would come armed with media weapons. So why validate the negative impressions currently suffocating Israel at the international level? Why risk a PR disaster right now, with Netanyahu headed to Washington and indirect talks struggling to lift off the ground?
The question must at least be posed: is Israel intentionally trying to “incite” Palestinians? Because that strategy will backfire.
President Mahmoud Abbas has already declared a three-day state of mourning over Monday's deaths, while Hamas urges protests at Israeli embassies. Palestinians have options; they could spark another IDF crackdown or diplomatically protest and either way shut down indirect talks. In both cases they could easily blame Israel, but the smarter approach is staying calm and let others do their dirty work.
Israel has dug a deep enough hole by itself. Dragging Turkey into the incident by attacking one of its vessels ensures the international community becomes involved. This too is illogical given Turkey’s personal attitude towards Israel. If one would argue Turkey provoked Israel, that would be the point.
Maybe Israel wanted to sent a message, but it also swallowed the bait.
“By targeting civilians, Israel has once again shown its disregard for human life and peaceful initiatives," a Turkish foreign ministry statement said. "We strongly condemn these inhumane practices of Israel. This deplorable incident, which took place in open seas and constitutes a fragrant breach of international law, may lead to irreparable consequences in our bilateral relations."
Israel likes to brag about its military skill, but its strategy needs dire correction. On the contrary to Washington’s latest guarantees and rumors of a false settlement freeze, Israel’s political strategy also remains unsustainable. Relations with Lebanon, Syria, and now Turkey show no indication of improving; Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt aren’t thrilled with Netanyahu either. Military force remains its only option in Iran, and now the UN and Arab League are trying to shine light on Israel’s nuclear weapons, driving yet another wedge between America.
Indirect negotiations with Fatah remain contentious and sluggish.
Then there’s an illegal blockade on Gaza and no legitimate way to enforce it. Let the convoy through, crack down with Al Jazeera’s eyes everywhere, either way a lose-lose situation. Vowed Berlin, "We have two other boats. This is not going to stop us."
The final outcome highlights Israel’s standard operating procedure: tactical success, strategic failure. As usual Israel’s overly aggressive actions will spawn new attacks and new protests, entangle it in the international community, and ultimately fail to achieve its strategic objectives. Why attack the “Freedom Flotilla?
Out of desperation, out of weakness - a taste of the Gazan experience.
Israel must realize that avoiding battles advances its campaign towards peace. It may believe it won this round, but it lost before opening fire. Not for the first time either.