ISRAEL

“Raid on Freedom Flotilla will only underline Israel’s growing isolation”

Our Observer Joel Schalit is an Israeli writer based in Berlin. He sent us this opinion piece in reaction to the raid by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) on a flotilla of Gaza-bound aid ships on Monday morning. Read more...

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An anti-Israel demo in Madrid on Monday. Photo posted on Flickr by Christian Gonzalez Garcia

Our Observer Joel Schalit is an Israeli writer based in Berlin. He sent us this opinion piece in reaction to the raid by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) on a flotilla of Gaza-bound aid ships on Monday morning.

Their reasoning could not have been clearer. ‘We couldn't allow the opening of a corridor of smuggling arms and terrorists', said Israel's deputy foreign minister, Daniel Ayalon, as he sought to defend Israel's attack on a convoy of  six vessels attempting to break Israel's siege of Gaza. The flotilla was organised by groups tied to terrorist organisations, according to Defence Minister Ehud Barak. Not just any revolutionary outfits, but, allies of Hamas and al Qaeda, added Ayalon.

To prove his point, Ayalon claimed that Israeli forces had found weapons aboard one of the Gaza-bound vessels. One soldier was alleged to have suffered from gunshot wounds, while seven others were reported to have been wounded. To wit, Major Avital Liebovitch stated that Israeli troops ‘found [them]selves in the middle of a lynching' when they boarded the Mavi Marmara ferry. ‘Around 10 activists attacked commandos, relieving them of their pistols', she told reporters.

Even though allegations were also made concerning the activists' use of everything from scissors and clubs to marbles and knives to fight back, according to [Israeli journalist] Noam Sheizaf, an IDF search of the Marmara confirmed an absence of weaponry on board. Whatever rationales Israeli officials offered for the violence of the operation, there was an increasing amount of evidence being offered to contradict what they were saying. Including from sources identified as the Israeli military.

Civilian casualties enrage debate

Such fierce debate about the fighting would not matter so much if there hadn't been so many civilian casualties. At the time of this article's writing, the Israeli government had confirmed it had killed 10 people, whereas Al-Jazeera was estimating 19 deaths. Dozens of activists are rumoured to have been injured and to have required transfer to Israeli hospitals in order to receive medical care. Video footage shot on the Marmara confirms Israeli soldiers used heavy force.

Though little information has been released about the identities of the casualties, Israel's Channel 10 is supposed to have reported Monday that among the dead are a senior Turkish diplomat and an unspecified number of Israeli Arabs. Meanwhile, news sources confirmed that Sheikh Raed Salah, the head of Israel's Islamic Movement, had sustained serious injuries, leading a number of Israeli journalists to speculate that this might ignite an uprising by Israel's own Arab community.

Whatever the consequences of the Israeli operation, miscalculations were clearly made. Several European countries with citizens aboard the ships were reported to have expressed their anger, including Denmark, Germany, France and Italy. [The UN also condemned the move and called for an independent investigation on Tuesday.]

Israel continues to embarrass its friends

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was scheduled to fly to Washington on Tuesday to meet with President Obama, has cancelled his trip. Given how difficult relations between the two leaders have been over the last year, it was hard to imagine a warm welcome from the White House.

Following the Israeli government's humiliation over the Dubai passport affair earlier this year, in which nearly twenty of its agents were found to have used forged foreign passports to enter the Gulf state and kill a Hamas operative, this was not a good sign. If anything, the raid on the ‘Freedom Flotilla' only served to underline Israel's growing isolation. Irrespective of the steadfast support of its own closest allies - the US and the UK - to enter the OECD, to shield its leaders from arrest for war crimes, it continues to conduct itself in a manner that embarrasses its friends.

Public perception of the problem abroad?

The question is how. If one were to query members of Israel's current government, in all likelihood they would proffer that it isn't their policies that pose a problem, but rather public perception abroad. Wasn't Obama still fighting the same war against terror as Bush? Hadn't a Pakistani Taliban member just tried to detonate a car bomb in New York City? Wasn't the new British Prime Minister supposed to be more conservative on security issues than his predecessor, Gordon Brown? Why weren't their staff doing a better job managing the media back home?

For anyone who follows Israeli politics, if government officials are not blaming the violence on the other side, you're just as likely to read complaints about the outside world. As usual, the concern is not with the truth of what happens, but correcting misconceptions about why events like these continue to occur. What it will take to correct this reflex, and get Israel's political leadership to break form, is anyone's guess. Certainly, the Obama administration has had little success in changing Israeli behaviour. The attack on the Freedom Flotilla is the latest example.

Predictably, lost amid all the noise about who did what and how unfair the foreign media always are towards Israel, are the 1.5 million miserable Palestinians living in Gaza."