After the Flotilla Fiasco, Israel on the Defensive

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Israeli naval soldiers stand guard on a missile ship as the Israeli navy intercepts peace boats bound for Gaza in the Mediterranean Sea on May 31, 2010

In Israel, the question of blame begins with asking who hit whom first on the top deck of the Turkish ship M.V. Mavi Marmara. Long stretches of the evening news appeared in black-and-white, as battered commandos and dour analysts pored over grainy footage from military helicopters hovering above the ship. "I was the second to be lowered in by rope," a captain told reporters from his hospital bed in Haifa, his hand bandaged and his face pixelated to protect his identity. "It started off as a one-on-one fight, but then more and more people started jumping us. I had to fight against quite a few terrorists who were armed with knives and batons."

The soldiers' account won the immediate sympathy of an Israeli public that rallies reflexively around its armed forces under siege. But by the end of Tuesday, June 1, it was clear that with nine civilians dead at commando hands and a full-throated international outcry being raised, Israel's public image was the most visible casualty of all. "We're in a very bad situation," says Danny Rothschild, a retired major general who now heads a think tank. "The hardest time is yet to come. It's a wave that is not yet over. I think there'll be a lot of international implications."

In the daily Haaretz, columnist Ari Shavit cast about for a historic parallel for the much maligned decision to launch a military takeover of the Marmara, a Turkish aid ship intent on breaking Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip. He found it in Great Britain's brutal 1947 handling of the S.S. Exodus 1947, a vessel brimming with Holocaust survivors whose turning away led to a global outrage that hastened Britain's departure from the land Israelis and Palestinians have been fighting over since. "This was wrong in every way possible," Shavit says. "From top to bottom — strategically, it was wrong, taking risks with Turkey now when things are so sensitive was definitely a mistake. And making ourselves look like the bullies after Goldstone and Operation Cast Lead." Richard Goldstone headed the commission that put together a U.N. report on Operation Cast Lead, Israel's controversial winter 2008 thrust into Gaza that killed more than 1,000 Palestinians.

"It seems like even a little boy should understand the question of international legitimacy is so important to Israel's own security," Shavit says. "That's aside from questions of morality and human values. And here, we do something with our own hands, we shatter that."

Politicians and analysts were only beginning to assign blame for the operation. Second-guessing on the airwaves and in news columns nominated the entire chain of command, from the admirals who sent the commandos aboard armed with paint guns, up to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who canceled his scheduled meeting with President Obama and appeared at the pixelated captain's bedside. "The responsibility lies with those who initiated this clash and those who organized the convoy," declared Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

Some in Israel agreed. But in a nation once famous for the surgical quality of its commando operations — Netanyahu's brother died freeing a hijacked airliner in Uganda in the famous Raid on Entebbe — the previous 48 hours were nothing short of mortifying. "A lot of these so-called peace activists were rather extreme," says Shavit of the passengers seen flailing at the commandos, dumping at least one over the rail to a lower deck. "And ... the government and [the Israel Defense Forces] played into their hands in such a ridiculous, astounding way!"

Deteriorating relations with Turkey, long a valued military ally, were an immediate worry. In addition, the episode brought a world of new attention to Gaza, the isolated beachside stretch whose 1.5 million inhabitants are governed by Hamas. That militant Islamist group is regarded as a terrorist organization by both Israel and the U.S., and Israel has enforced a blockade of the slim parcel of land.

The flotilla that included the Marmara carried aid, including cement to rebuild apartments leveled by Operation Cast Lead, in a voyage that was part humanitarian, part public relations and entirely provocative. In the wake of the Marmara incident, Egypt abruptly opened its border with Gaza in the name of humanitarian relief. Would the international outcry force Israel to reconsider its blockade? "Very much depends on how much pressure will be put on the government of Israel," says Rothschild. "It will not be done voluntarily, I can assure you."