Tel Aviv — The botched Israeli interception of a Gaza-bound blockade-buster flotilla ignited the usual Monday-morning quarterbacking in Israel:
Had the military prepared itself sufficiently for violent resistance?
Did Israel lose the media war in the first hours when official spokespeople were silent for hours despite reports of fatalities on the ships?
But it also fostered renewed public discussion about the broader issue of whether the Gaza blockade has become a burden for the Jewish state instead of a lever to pressure the Hamas government, as it was first conceived three years ago.
“The real issue is the siege on Gaza,” said Gershon Baskin, the co-director of the Israel Palestine Center for Public Information, who said that until now there hasn’t been much discussion of the issue.
To be sure, most of the proponents of rethinking the Gaza blockade come from a more dovish security and political background. Eitan Haber, a former top aide to Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin, said that Israel needs to rethink whether intercepting aid ships is worth the price of triggering an international crisis. He suggested that, if there are future attempt to break the Gaza blockade by sea, the flotillas should be allowed to pass.
“We fell into a trap,” Haber said. “We knew what would happen. I know the argument that we shouldn’t blink. But you need some brains,” he said in an interview with Israel Radio. “If we knew this was going to be a provocation, then we should have found a different way.”
Questioning the value of the blockade, Haber pointed out that the notion of an Israeli siege on Gaza is “nonsense” because Gazans have ample supplies of food.
Other experts on Israel’s center-left are arguing that the blockade — enforced by land, sea and air on Gaza — has failed on several counts. It hasn’t forced the Palestinians to free kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit and it hasn’t undermined Hamas. And Israel’s closure on commercial goods passing through its land crossings into Gaza has spurred an underground economy through the tunnels, an improvised trade route controlled by Hamas, which uses it to collect fees.
Instead of undercutting the Hamas leadership, the blockade is stifling the Palestinian middle and working classes, the future of Gaza and a potential counterbalance to Hamas, they argue.
Leaders of the major American pro-Israel groups quickly rushed to Israel’s defense, arguing that the deadly violence was the sole responsibility of flotilla activists who were seeking confrontation from the outset.
But beneath the mostly unbroken wall of defense were hints of concern about the strategy and implementation of the attack and more explicit worries about some of its consequences.
The “tragedy has given Hamas at least a short-term political boost while undercutting the sea blockade of Gaza, fitting well with the agenda of the flotilla’s organizers, Turkey’s Humanitarian Relief Fund,” wrote Matthew Levitt, David Makovsky and Jeffrey White in a policy paper for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a pro-Israel think tank.
In addition, “the episode has severely damaged ties between Turkey and Israel for the foreseeable future,” the authors noted.
On the upside, they added that “the incident — to the extent that the details are known — has shown that U.S.-Israel relations have proven resilient in the face of the first major international incident since the two parties worked to mend relations following the Jerusalem building-permit crisis in March.”
That has been evident in the cautious, relatively mild statements from Obama administration officials — despite strong international pressure for a stern U.S. response.
Kean University political scientist Gilbert Kahn predicted the flotilla fiasco will add to pressure on the Obama administration to look for diplomatic openings to Hamas and to press harder for an easing of the Gaza blockade — but said “Israel cannot lift the blockade by itself; it needs a quid pro quo.”
And that quid pro quo, he said, is Shalit.
“If Hamas and Fatah can bridge the gap between them — which is huge — and then evolve a more unified approach, it will force both the United States and the Quartet to reassess how they address the Palestinians,” Kahn said. “And it will pressure Israel to open up a different kind of dialogue with them.”
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, agreed that the incident “will help Hamas and their supporters open up the issue of the Gaza blockade; it will put a lot of pressure on the Israeli government.”
But Foxman said the government in Jerusalem cannot relent on the blockade without winning the release of Shalit, whose kidnapping and imprisonment are key justifications for the blockade.
While leaders of mainstream Jewish groups are conspicuously refraining from criticizing the Israeli attack, Foxman, speaking from Israel, said that “everybody here is second-guessing whether it could have been done better. Israelis are engaging in a necessary postmortem because they have to develop a strategy for dealing with future situations; this one certainly didn’t work. And it will happen again.”
On Tuesday, the Zionist Organization of America condemned “the media and foreign government attacks [of Israel] including from China, France, Germany, Italy and Turkey.” The group also called for an investigation of Turkey, “the country in which the organization assisting Islamic terrorists and responsible for the flotilla is based.”
J Street and Americans for Peace Now, not surprisingly, took a different tack, criticizing the Israeli action and putting the blame squarely on the blockade itself.
“This shocking outcome of an effort to bring humanitarian relief to the people of Gaza is in part a consequence of the ongoing, counterproductive Israeli blockade of Gaza,” said J Street President and Founder Jeremy Ben-Ami in a statement. “J Street has been and continues to be opposed to the blockade — believing that there are better ways to ensure Israel’s security and to prevent weapons smuggling than a complete closure of the Gaza Strip.”
Debra DeLee, the APN CEO, said, “The fact that Israel finds itself in this difficult situation today underscores the extent to which Israel’s continued policy of blockading Gaza in untenable and increasingly indefensible.” (See her Opinion point-counterpoint with JINSA’s Shoshana Bryen on page 22.)
But David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, while agreeing that the crisis will “reopen the whole issue of the Gaza blockade,” put the blame for the incident solely on the Gaza protesters and their supporters.
On the one ship that offered violent resistance, he said, “what we saw was not an example of Mohandas Gandhi at work.”
Peter Beinart, who last week launched a frontal assault in The New York Review of Books on the American Jewish leadership for what he sees as its blind support for Israeli policies, found in the flotilla incident additional proof for his thesis.
Writing in the Daily Beast, he said, “the guilt lies with the Israeli leaders who oversee the Gaza embargo, and with Israel’s American supporters, who have averted their eyes.”
Mainstream pro-Israel leaders who this week defended the decision to intercept the flotilla and detain its passengers are colluding in an Israel effort to “impoverish the people of Gaza, and thus turn them against Hamas,” he said — in other words, to impose collective punishment on Gaza.
In Israel, debate about the effectiveness and international consequences of the blockade took a quantum leap with this week’s dramatic incident in the Mediterranean.
Despite the blockade’s goal of stifling military supply to the Hamas government, it has not stopped Hamas from re-arming with missiles smuggled through the tunnels or been an effective lever to force the Palestinians to free Shalit.
“It has hardened Palestinian positions on doing a prisoner swap deal with Israel,” said IPCPI’s Baskin. “For most the last siege, it has empowered and enriched Hamas by creating an underground economy. It weakens the average Gazan, the working class, who are our future friends and allies for peace. They are the ones being punished, not Hamas.”
The blockade has been enforced with the help of Egypt and the quiet consent of the international “Quartet” of peace process sponsors — the U.S., the United Nations, Russia and the European Union.
On Tuesday, Egypt said it would open the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Sinai for humanitarian purposes, a show of solidarity with Gaza and a response to the growing sympathy throughout the Middle East for Palestinians in Gaza.
Still, it was unclear whether Egypt would reverse its three-year policy of keeping the crossing closed to the general public — a move that would amount to punching a big hole through the blockade.
Recently, Egypt has been building an underground metal partition to shut down some of the smuggling tunnels.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defended the naval blockade at a meeting of cabinet ministers Tuesday, saying that the blockade keeps out weaponry shipped to Gaza from Iran and Hezbollah that would endanger the region.
“It’s true that there is international pressure and criticism regarding this policy, but we must understand that it is essential to maintaining Israeli security and the right of the state of Israel to defend itself,” he said in a press release.
The quiet tolerance of the blockade has slowly eroded in recent months among United Nations and European Union officials, who see it at best as ineffective — and at worst as collective punishment of the civilian population of Gaza. The ill-fated flotilla mission has “opened up the floodgates” of diplomatic criticism, said one Western diplomat based in the region.
Israel has come under mounting pressure from Great Britain and Ireland to end the naval blockade in the wake of the flotilla incident. Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen urged Israel to allow an Irish-owned ship carrying more blockade busters to reach Gaza.
But Israeli officials firmly reject such pleas.
“It would be unfortunate if there will be a call now to change policies on Gaza, because the blockade is still necessary to prevent Hamas from killing and destabilizing the situation in the area, and also derailing dialogue for peace,” said Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon.
“Especially at a time when Hamas is sliding in popularity, the calls embolden Hamas and destabilize the situation.”
Israeli human rights critics say that the blockade on Gaza amounts to a form of collective punishment on a civilian population, which is illegal under international law.
“For the last three years Israel has restricted the flow of goods in and out of Gaza, not to prevent security threats, but rather to cripple Gaza’s economy in order to pressure the civilian population,” said Sari Bashi, the director of Gisha, a nonprofit that does legal work on behalf of the rights of Palestinians to travel freely.
“Banned items include coriander, raw materials for manufacturing, and building materials. Punishing civilians for the acts of militants or political actors is illegal under international law and has done nothing to advance Israel’s stated goal of weakening the Hamas regime,” she said.
Joshua Mitnick is Israel correspondent. James D. Besser is Washington correspondent.
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