I have confidence that Israel’s defense leadership will correct the tactical error in the May 31 boarding of M/V Mavi Marmara that allowed the situation to spiral out of control. No revision of tactics is, by itself, a silver bullet, but the change of one premise will enable the IDF to go in properly prepared. The definition of that premise is whether the activists participating in a blockade-busting attempt will resist the IDF with force or not.
The excellent debate unfolding here at CONTENTIONS has already highlighted the reason why Israeli planners weren’t expecting such resistance on Monday. Max Boot points out that Israel has previously stopped and searched aid ships and allowed them to continue to Gaza. It’s precisely because those vessels were boarded without resistance that the Israeli commandos anticipated none.
Should they have considered resistance likely? Yes. There’s no sugar-coating that operational truth. All the information was available beforehand to suggest resistance was probable, from the integral involvement of IHH and Hamas to the numerous prior statements of Islamist activists that the flotilla’s purpose was to break the blockade, incurring martyrdom if necessary. The weapons found on Mavi Marmara, which include homemade projectiles and incendiary devices (video here), are exactly what Hamas guerrillas have used for years in street confrontations with the IDF.
My criticism here is from a military professional perspective – and I can assure you of this: I can’t possibly beat up the IDF planners any more than they are beating up themselves at this moment. Faulty planning and lame execution get no mercy in military circles. The planners of the raid don’t expect any.
This flotilla incident is a wake-up call: a demonstration of operational intent on the part of Israel’s guerrilla enemies. Until this week, Israel thought of handling the Gaza maritime problem in terms of enforcing a blockade against activists who were unarmed and, at worst, rather silly. By the criteria of both naval operations and international custom, the Israelis have approached it straightforwardly. The maritime blockade of Gaza was declared in proper channels, via a “Notice to Mariners,” and the enforcement has always involved the minimum force necessary to achieve the objective. Intercepting ships when they are close to the blockaded area – not interfering with security and order in foreign ports – is a sound practice for keeping a blockade’s profile low and its consequences manageable.
The IHH-organized flotilla, with its eruption of armed resistance, changes the calculus of Israeli strategy for the whole maritime security problem. We can expect Israel’s leaders and IDF planners to adapt. They will do better than adapt, I predict: they will get ahead of the problem, planning for even more contingencies than Hamas has yet concocted.
But armchair naval commandos need to understand that this is a very tough problem. Going in with sufficient force to avert resistance from the outset works almost every time when a boarding involves criminals with mercenary motives: small-time pirates, drug-runners, or sanctions-breakers. The U.S. Navy and Coast Guard have long experience with that kind of maritime enforcement. If the standoff at sea involves activists seeking martyrdom, however, controlling them without killing them will often be even harder in a maritime situation than it is on land.
At some point, the Israelis may indeed have to choose interdicting arms shipments through kinetic action in foreign ports. But the real issue with the flotillas is the integrity of the blockade. As long as Hamas is getting foreign assistance, its operatives won’t stop trying to break the blockade with dramatic instances of confrontation and self-immolation at sea. Other nations in the region need to wake up and prevent their ships – and, if possible, their citizens – from being impressed into such service.
It’s not clear how far Turkey will go down this path; perhaps the 2011 elections can change the nation’s course. The Europeans, however, have no excuse for not correcting course now. The U.S. and the EU should endorse a policy that all NGO aid sent to Gaza by sea be offloaded in Israeli- or Egyptian-controlled ports, inspected, and convoyed over land. The West’s irresponsible cooperation with the Hamas narrative has gone far enough.