Israel vows to prevent flotilla from reaching Gaza

Israel vows to prevent flotilla from reaching Gaza

As experts ponder lessons from 2010’s botched raid on the Mavi Marmara, Jerusalem insists its naval blockade of the Strip is legal

The Marianne of Gothenburg, a Swedish-flagged trawler leading a flotilla of boats sailing for the Gaza Strip, June 2015. (YouTube/Ship to Gaza Sweden)
The Marianne of Gothenburg, a Swedish-flagged trawler leading a flotilla of boats sailing for the Gaza Strip, June 2015. (YouTube/Ship to Gaza Sweden)

Israel will not allow the pro-Palestinian flotilla to reach the shores of Gaza and is prepared for “any scenario,” the Foreign Ministry said Sunday, as four vessels made their way to the area, with the first expected within 24 hours, in a purported bid to deliver humanitarian aid to the people of Gaza.

The so-called “Freedom Flotilla” awakened memories from five years ago, when Israeli troops who boarded the Gaza-bound Mavi Marmara in international waters killed nine pro-Palestinian activists who attacked them with rods and knives.

However, as the Marianne av Göteborg — a small fishing boat sailing under a Swedish flag — made its way toward Gaza, a repeat of the May 31, 2010, raid appeared unlikely, as the 18 pro-Palestinian activists on board are considered nonviolent. The assessment in Jerusalem is that if the ship doesn’t abort its mission, Israeli forces will take it to the port of Ashdod.

“The Foreign Ministry and all other relevant bodies, mostly the IDF and the Prime Minister’s Office, are fully prepared for the arrival of the flotilla. We are ready for every possible scenario,” the ministry’s spokesperson, Emmanuel Nahshon, told The Times of Israel on Sunday.

“It won’t reach Gaza,” he vowed. “The State of Israel won’t let that happen.”

Israel’s naval blockade of the Hamas-run territory is intended to prevent the terrorist group from acquiring weapons and other material that could be used to attack Israel, Nahshon said. Therefore, Israel will not tolerate any attempt to breach the blockade, not even a symbolic one.

“The people who organize this flotilla declared from the outset that their purpose is to break Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza, which is legal according to international law,” he said, referring to the 2011 Palmer report by a UN investigative committee, which implied that Israel has the right to stop Gaza-bound vessels.

There are acceptable and accessible ways to deliver humanitarian aid and other goods to the Palestinians in Gaza, Nahshon added. “If they want to make a statement to break the blockade – we won’t allow that,” Nahshon said.

Israelis from various political backgrounds questioned the wisdom of Israel’s insistence on preventing ostensibly peaceful flotillas from reaching Gaza. The potential detention or injury of former Tunisian president Moncef Marzouki, who’s aboard the flotilla, raises the possibility of public outrage in Tunis and farther afield, Channel 2 reported.

Former deputy prime minister Dan Meridor (Likud), for instance, who was a member of the close circle advising Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the Mavi Marmara crisis, suggested there was no problem with letting ships go through if they don’t carry anything that could be used against Israel.

“What is the purpose of the blockade? That’s the question I raised then, and that’s the question we need to ask ourselves today,” he told The Times of Israel. “What is it supposed to achieve? If the point is to make sure there are no weapons or explosives aboard, than we can easily check the boats and find out. Anyway, most of the smuggling is being done via tunnels.”

If the activists’ claim is true and the vessels contain only harmless humanitarian goods, they should be allowed to reach Gaza, he suggested. “I hope we learned the lessons from the previous flotilla.”

Uri Avnery, a former Knesset member and prominent far-left activist, similarly argued that the current flotilla poses no danger to Israel, while sending in troops would further seal Israel’s image as aggressor.

“Four small boats, loaded with medical equipment and solar panels to generate electricity, do not constitute the slightest threat to Israel’s security,” he said in a statement. “The arrival of the boats with their humanitarian cargo at Gaza would be a modest goodwill gesture by the State of Israel. Conversely, sending armed commandos to take over the boats at sea would be one more act of naked force which would further entrench Israel’s image as an aggressive and violent Goliath — an image which is the main reason for the increasing acts of boycott against Israel all over the world.”

Israeli officials on Sunday refused to comment on the navy’s operational considerations, such as whether it planned to intercept the Marianne av Göteborg in international waters or wait for it to enter Israel’s territorial waters.

Lessons to be learned from 2011

The IDF is keeping a tight lid on its operational plans yet the primary lessons learned can be expressed in three points. Intelligence could be crucially important in preparing for a possible operation. Israel should know who is on the boats and to what extent they are devoted to nonviolent protest. The five ships that set sail in May 2010 with the Mavi Marmara went peacefully to harbor with no lives lost. The Marmara, however, had a core group of Turkish activists who had stored weapons on board and were very much willing to use violence.

Furthermore, lessons are to be learned from the botched takeover in 2010. The gradual way in which Israeli naval commandos were lowered onto the seething deck of the Marmara was a fatal mistake. The first commandos off the fast rope had to report back that they were in mortal danger despite the briefing preparing them for peace activists, according to a 2011 documentary on Channel 2.

If the intelligence picture shows that there is a chance for violence and Israel decides to use force to bar the flotilla from reaching Gaza, then the commandos need to be brought on board quickly and in unison, so that violence can be quelled. The gradual insertion of troops last time was what led the protesters to believe that they could inflict deadly harm on the commandos and continue with their mission.

The troops need a clear picture of what they might encounter in terms of activists and weapons. Assuming there are no firearms on board, the soldiers need to be equipped with effective nonlethal weapons — weapons with stopping power, such as the foam-tipped bullets used by Border Police — and they need to be delivered on board, to the greatest extent possible, in one fell swoop.

Crucially, the Marmara taught the army that it has to get its version of the truth out alongside the initial videos from the activists — otherwise the story is irrevocably shaped by others. The hours that passed until the army supplied footage of its commandos under lethal assault were the primary catalyst for the army-wide program training soldiers in the usage of operational video.

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