The attempt by a six-ship flotilla of "peace activists" to land 10,000 tons of humanitarian supplies in Gaza in defiance of the Israeli blockade was intended to be provocative. It succeeded far better than its planners perhaps had hoped.
Israel found itself goaded into the legally questionable interception of the lead vessel, a Turkish-flagged cruise ship far out in international waters. When the ship's passengers, armed with clubs and bottles, attacked the Israeli commandos who had rappelled onto the deck, the soldiers fired, killing 10, most of them apparently Turks. The ships were taken to an Israeli port where the 700 protesters were given a choice of deportation or prison.
Israel had attempted to defuse the flotilla operation by offering to let the ships unload their supplies in Israel, where the Israelis would screen them for military contraband — an exceptionally expansive category under the terms of the blockade — before shipping them on to Gaza.
But simply delivering the supplies was not really the point of the exercise. What happened next was an incident that would provoke near-universal condemnation of Israel and its blockade. Few bought the Israeli government's argument that this was somehow self-defense. Mildest in its reaction was the United States, with the White House calling it a "tragedy."
Turkey denounced the interception as "inhumane state terrorism," recalled its ambassador to Israel, canceled planned joint military exercises and called for a special U.N. session. This may give Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's Islamist prime minister, the pretext he seems to have been seeking to step back from Turkey's position as Israel's closest Muslim ally.
At least five European nations called in Israeli ambassadors to demand an explanation. France's foreign minister said he was "profoundly shocked by the tragic consequences." U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon demanded "a full explanation from Israel."
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew home from Canada, forcing cancellation of a kiss-and-make-up meeting Tuesday with President Barack Obama, a session intended to warm up frosty relations and restart direct Middle East peace talks.
The flotilla shootings were the latest in a series of diplomatic mishaps for Israel — the charges that it forged the passports of friendly nations to assassinate a Hamas leader in Dubai; the announcement while Vice President Joe Biden was there on an official visit that despite a U.S. request to the contrary, it would build new Jewish housing on land claimed by the Palestinians; and renewed international attention on its nuclear arsenal.
Israel has imposed its suffocating blockade on Gaza since the Hamas takeover in 2007. Like most blockades and embargoes, it punishes the wrong people, the ordinary Gazans, without changing the behavior of the leaders it's aimed at. The inevitable postmortem on the killings should be an occasion to review that blockade with the goal of allowing reconstruction and commerce back into that impoverished seaside enclave.
Scripps Howard News Service