Editorial: Israel's tragic act

Last updated 05:00 02/06/2010

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Like any nation Israel is entitled to defend itself and protect its citizens.

It regards Gaza, controlled by the hardline Hamas organisation, as a major threat to its security. This view is understandable as there is a history of attacks on Israel from Gaza using rockets and other weaponry undoubtedly smuggled into the territory.

These attacks have prompted incursions into Gaza by Israeli soldiers. They are also the rationale for the three-year Israeli and Egyptian blockade which is designed to prevent weapons being smuggled into Gaza amidst genuine aid.

But as is often the case, sympathy for Israel's security quickly evaporates when it resorts to excessive force. That was so this week when its soldiers stormed aid vessels in the Free Gaza flotilla.

Reports vary about what precisely occurred when Israeli troops boarded the ships, and it will require an independent investigation to determine the facts, but on at least one of the flotilla vessels the soldiers opened fire with live ammunition.

When the shooting stopped at least 10, and possible as many as 19, of the pro-Palestinian activists aboard were dead. The Israeli action has attracted widespread international condemnation and forced Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to cancel a scheduled meeting with United States President Barack Obama.

It can be acknowledged that the Gaza flotilla was an act of provocation and deliberately so. Israel had in the past eased its blockade to allow some aid ships to enter Gaza, but this flotilla was as much about the political goal of highlighting the plight of Gazans as it was about delivering humanitarian supplies.

The flotilla had the tacit support of the Turkish Government which, despite being a predominantly Muslim nation, did have tolerably warm relations with Israel until the 2009 invasion of Gaza.

And why were the ships carrying about 600 pro-Palestinian supporters, including several high-profile figures, if not to make a political statement?

But despite this provocation and regardless of the legal position under international law the Israeli action was totally disproportionate to any threat the ships posed and it was also poorly planned.

Israel has blamed the carnage on the activists who, it is claimed, were carrying weapons and attacked the soldiers. That claim remains to be substantiated although it does appear that several activists managed to wrest firearms from soldiers, which is embarrassing for the Israeli military.

But it is more likely that the fatalities were due to those who planned the boarding totally underestimating the likely response of the Palestinian supporters aboard.

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The military must have known of the presence of the activists, through intelligence sources, and should have realised the potential for violence as inevitably several of these supporters would attempt to resist the boarding.

And when this did occur the soldiers had no game plan other than using lethal force on civilians.

For Israel this is a public relations nightmare. The killings have placed its traditionally closest friend, the United States, in a highly awkward position. It will add to the recent tenseness between Israel and the US, which Netanyahu's cancelled visit had been designed to address.

And the killings have also destroyed any prospect that Israel could repair relations with Turkey, where many on the flotilla came from.

But the boarding will also focus attention on the impact of the blockade of Gaza. Although the blockade is aimed at Hamas, its officials tax and control the aid and other goods which do arrive in Gaza.

It is the ordinary Gazans who are the real victims of the blockade, which could be Israel's punishment for them voting for Hamas.

Israel insists that any aid must be channelled through it to ensure products which could be made into bombs and other weapons do not enter Gaza. The reality is that it also excludes many products which could not be made into weapons.

The only positive feature which might emerge from this week's tragic events is that this time world outrage, which normally hardens Israel's resolve, might leave it no option but to relax or end the blockade which has brought incredible suffering to so many Gazans.

- The Press

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