Aluf Benn has a provocative editorial in today’s Haaretz advising the Israeli military to lighten up about the armada of “humanitarian aid” ships that are planning to run the Gaza blockade in May. About 1,000 protesters are expected to head this way aboard twenty ships, and “feverish preparations” are afoot among the Israelis to head it off. Benn’s point is that the military option — which some in the IDF are claiming is the only option — is simply not viable unless the protesters are trying to bring arms into Gaza. And if they aren’t, Benn argues, we would be exceptionally stupid to treat them as anything other than minor pests. If we give them more photo ops of Israeli soldiers descending on ships full of civilians, we align ourselves in the eyes of the international viewing public with the Arab dictators now pointing their weapons on protesting citizens. The only choice, he says, is to let them in.
Opening the gates will neutralize the danger inherent in the new flotilla. In the absence of a confrontation on the high seas, the ships’ passengers will disembark on the coast at Gaza and will attract barely ten seconds of media coverage. The Middle East is burning with the flames of revolution, and while the West witnesses history being written before its eyes, no one will pay attention to a few demonstrators cursing Israel and waving signs condemning it. With that it will be over. The ships’ passengers will be seen as a nuisance rather than as heroes, and their hosts in Gaza will quickly be fed up with their presence.
Benn acknowledges that the protesters, who are “boiling with their hatred of Israel and their will to undermine its legitimacy,” will not be satisfied with a few seconds of international attention, and even grants that he “understand[s] the motivations of Israeli officials and officers who want to teach them a lesson.” But that satisfaction would be short-lived:
Nothing is going to convert these “Free Gaza” activists into ardent Zionists, not embracing them or shooting at them. The danger they present lies in the support they mobilize among less involved segments of the public in Turkey and the West and in enlisting them in the fight against Israel. Convincing such people that Israel is an evil, criminal country requires that it be portrayed as such. It’s very simple. Like a bull in the ring, Israel, too, reacts instinctively with fury at the sight of the red cape, but then the bull is stabbed to death to the cheers of the crowd.
Benn reminds Israel that the point of the blockade is solely to prevent arms from making their way into Gaza. Arms interception should therefore be the only justification for Israeli interference with the armada, an assertion that contains a criticism of Israeli intelligence that was voiced by Claire Berlinski and others at the time of the Mavi Marmara: surely an intelligence service as sophisticated as ours is capable of detecting what’s in the holds of ships populated by people avowedly hostile to Israel and being sailed towards our enemies. As he puts it:
Someone with the capacity to locate and capture the arms ship Victoria in the middle of the Mediterranean and a Hamas engineer in Ukraine can, and must, also uncover what is hiding on the flotilla ships. If the flotilla organizers are so foolish as to smuggle rockets and bombs in the ships’ hulls and are then caught red-handed, Israel would enjoy a huge public relations coup. In the absence, however, of confirmed information on the presence of weaponry on the protest armada, it should be allowed to pass through.
Benn concludes by noting that the world has changed since last spring, and we will be even more vilified than we were the first time around if we are perceived to be using our military might against innocent protesters.
In the spring of 2011, firing at unarmed demonstrators is associated with yesterday’s dictators, with Gadhafi and Assad and the president of Yemen. Israel must not become associated with such a band of criminals. No “easing of the blockade” will soften international outrage at the sight of masked soldiers violently taking control of civilian ships. Instead of stopping the flotilla, we must stop the foolishness. There is no other available trick to head off a new international imbroglio.