At first, reports of the number of dead fluctuated by the hour. After Israeli naval commandos landed on a Turkish ferry heading for Gaza, rumors said that Sheikh Raed Salah, leader of the radical Islamic movement among Israeli Arabs, had been killed on board. The rumors turned into news items in the Arab media; the sheikh was then reported alive and well. Descriptions of what actually happened on the crowded deck of the Mavi Marmara have, predictably, been wildly at odds. Activists who were on board say the Israeli commandos fired before being attacked; the Israeli military says the soldiers were defending themselves from a mob. Both sides present film clips of the nighttime struggle to back up their case.
Out of this blurred picture, one thing seems agonizingly clear: The raid was a link in a chain of premeditated folly.
Let's follow that chain, from the news reports backward. To deflect criticism, Israeli army sources have told the press that the commandos faced a "lynch" when they descended by ropes from helicopters onto the Mavi Marmara -- the largest boat in the flotilla intended to break Israel's blockade on Gaza. Inside Israel, the word "lynch" stirs a very loaded memory: the mob murder of two Israeli soldiers who strayed into the West Bank city of Ramallah at the start of the Second Intifada in 2000.
Yet the word emphasizes the stark difference between the two events. The commandos didn't stray onto the ferry's deck. They boarded it in a planned operation. If, as Israel Defense Forces footage seems to show, people on the boat's deck greeted them with knives and clubs, it means that at least some of the activists decided in advance that nonviolence wasn't their strategy. Nonetheless, they weren't lynching anyone; they were attempting to stop a boarding party in international waters. The Israeli Foreign Ministry argues that interdicting a ship on the high seas to enforce a declared blockade is legal under international law. It should have been no surprise, however, that the boarding would meet resistance from the 679 people aboard the ship -- a mix of pro-Palestinian activists from the international Free Gaza Movement; members of the Turkish Islamic relief group Insani Yardim Vakfi; and a handful of prominent Israeli Arabs.
That takes us back a link: The decision to send a handful of commandos to seize the ship -- a decision approved by Prime Minister Netanyahu and his inner circle of ministers -- shows hubris, poor intelligence work, and determined inability to learn from experience. Both the politicians and the generals expected that the arrival of Israeli soldiers would convince the crew and passengers to submit. And yet, a day before the boarding, Israel Radio cited an Al-Jazeera report that people aboard the ship said they were ready to die. The Israel Radio reporter described that attitude as "paranoia." He didn't consider the possibility that those aboard were ready for a fight. It seems that military intelligence also failed to examine clues in plain sight.
The naval commandos are an elite unit, trained for daring operations. Controlling an angry crowd of civilians armed with knives and slingshots isn't in their job description. The riot equipment they got for this mission was insufficient. Outnumbered, they resorted to live fire. But riot control has long been an Israeli weak point. In 1990, outnumbered police fired on Palestinian demonstrators on the Temple Mount, killing a score of people and causing an international crisis. In 2000, police used live fire after Ariel Sharon's visit to the same holy site, killing several Palestinian protesters and igniting the Second Intifada. Yet before the 2005 evacuation of Jewish settlers in Gaza, troops and police got weeks of training in crowd control and self-restraint. Deployed en masse, they were able to subdue violent protesters without fatalities. Somehow, the comparative lessons weren't learned before this week's deadly fiasco.
Perhaps there's no way to use sophisticated crowd-control methods while boarding a ship. But that problem only leads us further back, to the decision to stop the flotilla. True, if Israel had allowed six ships, their passengers, and their cargo of humanitarian aid to reach Gaza, the siege of the Hamas-controlled territory would have been breached beyond repair.
But the Israeli siege itself is another link in the chain of folly. It was imposed in stages after Hamas' election victory in January 2006, the abduction of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit later that year, and the Hamas takeover of Gaza in 2007. Limited supplies are allowed through at land crossings -- and a shifting list of civilian goods are blocked. Instead, they reach Gaza through smuggling tunnels from Egypt, along with arms. The siege hasn't convinced Hamas to return Shalit. It hasn't sparked a popular revolt against Hamas rule. It has encouraged smuggling, caused suffering, and amplified foreign criticism of Israel. The flotilla was a missed chance for a long-needed review of Israel's policies toward Hamas since the pullout from Gaza in 2005.
So we move back one more link, to then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon decision's to leave Gaza unilaterally, rather than as part of a peace agreement with the Palestinian Authority. Sharon knew that reaching an agreement would mean yielding nearly all of the West Bank as well. He saw the Gaza withdrawal as a way to avoid making such a deal. But the unilateral pullout weakened Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas, an advocate of a negotiated peace, and legitimized Hamas and its "armed struggle."
Before and after the raid, Israeli officials referred to the flotilla as a "provocation" intended to harm Israel. That's probably true -- and only raises the question of why Israel allowed itself to be provoked. Part of the answer lies in a cognitive failure in understanding events long before 2005.
To explain, I need to turn for a moment to what I can only call an omen that occurred the day before the raid: At age 89, veteran Israeli dissident Lova Eliav died. In 1968, as a rising politician in the Labor Party, Eliav shocked his comrades by declaring that the Palestinians must be recognized as a people, that Israel must negotiate with them and give up the occupied territories. His heresy came after he spent months in the towns and refugee camps of Gaza and the West Bank, listening to Palestinians. It was a product of empathy, reason and the ability to believe in both peace and patriotism. He was driven from the party to the left margins of politics. Decades later, his ideas moved into the mainstream.
One more detail of his resumé: In 1947, as a young man, Eliav was the commander of a ship called the Haim Arlosoroff, which tried to bring Holocaust survivors to Palestine in defiance of British immigration limits. The voyage ended off the coast of Haifa when British marines took control of the ship. The would-be immigrants were interred in Cyprus. Eliav's mission was not a failure, though. It was one step in a campaign that stirred the world against British policy and led to the establishment of Israel.
Were Israel's current leaders able to read the past as Eliav did, to see oneself in one's adversary, they would have seen the implications of the voyage of the Mavi Marmara and the folly of interdicting it. They might even understand that their consistent effort to avoid a two-state solution is a mistake. Eliav embodied a heroic, humanistic Zionism. The omen of his passing was ignored. It remains for Israelis who believe in his path to demand that the government finally break the chain of folly.