One of the unfortunate aspects of the tragic events in the Mediterranean on Monday — when Israel boarded a ship belonging to a protest flotilla, with ensuing violence leading to nine deaths and many more injuries — is that it was unexpected yet very unsurprising.
It was unexpected because there were so many alternatives to Israel’s actions: there seems little case for the Israeli boarding to have been as ill-prepared as seems or as violent as it was. It was unsurprising, however, for several reasons: the Gaza blockade is increasingly condemned; Israel is under great pressure as its relations with key countries, even the United States, is strained; and Israel seems willing to act more and more uncompromisingly, as it did on Monday, even where this brings costs.
The Israeli boarding of the protest ship is not likely to cause dramatic change in Israel or end its blockade of Gaza, but still, there are four things worth noting about the event.
1. Israel was, in effect, outsmarted: it played into the protesters’ hands with its response.
Neither the protesters on the ships nor the Palestinians in Gaza could have hoped for a better public relations victory: the impression of a violent over-reaction by Israel is consistent with the image that these groups want to paint of Israel. The Israeli occupation — which often is indeed violent — is being painted as now expanded to include aggression against foreign civilians who would help the Palestinians. It is no surprise whatever that Hamas is milking it.
2. Israel has learned a PR lesson from this.
It is likely that the Israeli military responded as it did because it was over-confident, and yet ill-prepared for an aggressive reaction from those on the ship. If further ships try to reach Gaza, as seems likely, Israel will act differently: it will probably wait until those ships are in its territorial waters, and the military will either prepare a boarding much more meticulously, or will disable and divert ships rather than boarding them while under way. It may use the media more effectively for publicity, too, especially if weapons the like are found.
3. The blockade of Gaza must end — but won’t … at least not completely.
The blockade of Gaza is not working. It is not weakening Hamas: if anything, it has strengthened it. It is punitive: most of Gaza’s 1.5 million inhabitants have no political power. It is ineffective: materials are still getting through, whether legitimately at land crossings or smuggled through the many tunnels between Gaza and Egypt. Hamas can fire rockets at southern Israeli towns, regardless of the blockade.
Israel knows this, as does the international community, much of which has tacitly supported the blockade. But Israel will not end the blockade: that would allow Hamas to claim a major victory, and there’s all likelihood that Hamas would reinforce the message by recommencing rocket fire into Israel. But Israel could ease the blockade: at present, more than 2000 tonnes of goods are allowed into Gaza each day, but this is only about 20%-25% of what is needed. Israel can let a lot more in, yet keep the blockade technically in place.
4. Israel’s real concern is about its relationship with the United States: little else matters to it in comparison.
Israel’s relations with many countries of the world are strained. The February Mabhouh assassination in Dubai and the passports scandal that followed have damaged its relations with Britain, Australia, and several other states. The flotilla attack has damaged its relations with Turkey, probably critically.
The Gaza blockade is likely to be increasingly and widely condemned. Yet what matters above all to Israel is its relationship with Washington: this has been sorely tested in recent months, but the Security Council statement yesterday shows that the US is still willing to back Israel strongly on the world stage. As long as it does, other countries have little leverage over Israel.