The details of what happened on the boat leading the flotilla trying to enter the Gaza Strip are still coming to light. CNN in the U.S. is speaking about “conflicting accounts,” though the videos it keeps playing seem to vindicate the Israeli side. (You see an Israeli soldier dropping into the deck, and then you seem him getting attacked. There is no indication that the IDF soldier had opened fire. The same video appears on an Israeli website here.) And yet, none of this has prevented worldwide international condemnation, including the hauling in of Israeli ambassadors in Sweden, Spain, and Turkey. And the grim results seem very clear: between nine and 15 people on board killed, and at least two Israeli soldiers in critical condition with stab and gunshot wounds.
Veteran Israel journalist Ron Ben-Yishai at YNet describes IDF soldiers who were ill-prepared for having to disperse a violent response. “Don’t shoot, don’t shoot,” the soldiers yelled to each other as they were attacked, picked off one by one as they landed on the deck, still believing they were dealing with innocent ideologues rather than orchestrated violence. “Navy commandoes slid down to the vessel one by one,” Ben-Yishai reports, “yet then the unexpected occurred: The passengers that awaited them on the deck pulled out bats, clubs, and slingshots with glass marbles, assaulting each soldier as he disembarked. The fighters were nabbed one by one and were beaten up badly.” Later on, caches were found on board containing more weapons. What’s clear is that these people were prepared for a fight — peace activists, indeed.
But beyond the question of what happened on the boat, and the more serious questions of the evolving nature of pro-Palestinian activism and the IDF’s apparent failure to prepare for a violent response, the event is also an important test case for how Israel is doing at adapting itself to the new rapid-information media world. The answer: so-so. On one hand, it’s clear that the Israelis, and especially the IDF, have made major advances in internalizing the message that the media battle is a crucial and — more often than not — decisive element in modern warfare. They released videos that would have remained classified not too long ago; they cleared a commando who took part in the raid to interview with the Associated Press and CNN; and they have emphatically made the case that the people on board planned to use force in advance. All these facts suggest a sea change in the way the IDF deals with the media, one that we already saw in the last Gaza war with the creation, for example, of a YouTube channel for the IDF. The result has been that, at least here in the United States, television coverage has been somewhat balanced.
At the same time, Israel is still far behind the Palestinians in real-time rapid response and pre-event preparedness.
I spoke this morning with a senior producer for one of the major network news divisions in the United States. “This morning, I received a well-phrased press release from the office of [PA spokesman] Saeb Erekat,” he told me. “I got it at 4:36 a.m. It was obviously prepared in advance. Now it’s 11 a.m., and I still have got nothing from the Israeli government.” Predictably, that news release, which was sent out to key journalists around the Western world, was full of half-truths (like the assertion that the passengers on the ship were “unarmed civilian activists” who were “savagely attacked” by the IDF), but the point is that for all of Israel’s rapid response, it was wildly outmaneuvered by the Palestinian media commandos. As CNN pointed out, the pro-Palestinian activists were live-streaming the event and sending messages via Twitter throughout. “Despite everything they’ve been through,” he continued, “the Israelis seem to have been taken utterly by surprise. It’s always react, react, react — never proactive.”
UPDATE: A good friend of mine is a nurse who was on duty in the emergency room at a Jerusalem hospital when some of the injured “activists” were brought in. She tells me that many of them are wearing camouflage. “Not sure they were official Turkish army clothes,” she says, “but they weren’t civilian dress, that’s for sure.”