A Brief History of the Gaza Folly

Gershom Gorenberg

What was the real mistake in the Gaza flotilla fiasco? The answer depends on how far back you want to go, as I explain in my new piece at the American Prospect:

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.

Read the rest here, and return to SoJo to comment.

25 thoughts on “A Brief History of the Gaza Folly”

  1. Excellent article.

    from the article:

    “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.”

    I would say the lessons were taken only for how to treat Jewish settlers: ie with care as family. It helped that soldiers naturally could feel that. And also that operation was to show that scores or hundreds of thousands more of settlers could be so easily moved, should the time come.

    This was a failure because these flotilla people were all treated as the enemy and with the old proven failed method/idea: ( as per Amos Oz in today’s New York Times) that the way you deal with force is by utilizing more force… teach them a lesson. That lesson they were supposed to give up is never learned: the “enemy” never understands that they have to give up their high ideals, their idea of justice, because of forces against them. The opposite is the case.

  2. I agree that the Gaza blockade is a mistake. But given the strategic decision to maintain the blockade, I think the tactical decision to intercept and immediately board the ships was necessary. It would have been much worse to have an indefinite stand-off. But I think Gorenberg’s right on the blockade in general.

  3. Gershom, Thank you for writing this piece. This issue is so explosive and so fraught with partisan antagonisms, that I nearly despaired of finding any voice out there that I could feel was giving something close to an accurate presentation of the events and the history leading up to them. Who else would you recommend as a generally good source on the issue?

  4. Slightly off topic, but the withdrawal from Gaza was a mistake because it *legitimized Hamas*? If that’s really the nature of the mistake, it seems hard to blame Sharon for that without a truly serious mistake of denying agency to the Palestinians?

  5. Matt, myt understanding is that the people of Gaza were in a kind of bind with the choices they had. They were sick of Fatah corruption and went with Hamas. I don’t know how many bought the hard line- many probably did, some maybe did not but wanted change- whatever. Then there are those who favor Fatah, and those who are neutral and those who are even harder lined than Hamas. It is very unjust to lump Gazans as being of one mind or heart about their situation- not to mention the outrageous injustice of “collective punishment” by Israel.

  6. I see the only hope in this phrase from the full Prospect piece: ” to see oneself in one’s adversary”

    While is it clearly evident that many on board the Mavi M were not even tactically devoted to nonviolence (clearest evidence being that commitment was not made before leaving port), the ship as clearly contained many kinds of people–including a small Arab Israeli woman who sits in the Knesset. This link between some Gazans and Israeli Arabs is perhaps a second hope.

    This combined act of convoy and reception is unlike any Israeli raid/bombing of Gaza or any missle lauched from Gaza into Israel. This act is mutual, inherently so. Its focus is on relief, and relief can break the stories of the past. The break may occur not among the direct participants, the commandos and militant Gazans, but among those who joined the latter, the Israeli Arabs. I do hope Israelis of all races rise to the defense of those compatriot Arabs Israelis who may now speak out.

    I did not know of Lova Eliav, best evidence of my ignorance of your country’s struggle which began with its birth. It seems to me the proposition behind his view is clear (perhaps I overuse “clear” in hope): no race is privileged, all can be hurt, all can harm. Until this view can be reached, how can one avoid “It was a hate boat, not a love boat” as the end of thought.

  7. The situation is Gaza is hopeless. Even a “peace agreement” leading to a Palestinian state “side by side” with Israel wouldn’t help. Much of the population of the Strip are refugees. The Palestinians of Judea/Samaria view them as aliens…they have a noticeably different Egyptian accent than the other Palestinians. They are viewed as backward and the Palestinian Authority never made any real effort to have the “safe passage” route between Gaza and Judea/Samaria opened, even at the height of the “peace process” in the 1990’s because they didn’t want them flooding into the area.

    I am certain that if the IDF went into Gaza and ousted the HAMAS regime, the population would greed the troops as LIBERATORS and then after a couple of weeks they would begin demonstrations to get the IDF out. Ending the blockade won’t really make much difference because they will be economically dependent on HAMAS handouts in any event. The only time they had any real economic flexibility was during the period of full Israel “occupation” 1967-1993 when many Gazans worked in Israel and had money going straight into their pockets. Now they are totally depedent on Iranian largesse which is financing HAMAS and that comes with political and religious strings attached.
    A hopeless situation for them. Emigration to other places is the only possible outlet because Israel is not going to let them return to their pre-1948 homes.

  8. Ben-David. What a bunch of hooey . Of course you end up where you want: with the best time for Palestinians being under occupation and the ONLY solution being emigration of Palestinians to other places.

    Settle the conflict, compromise and compensate for what they lost, and Palestinians will either emigrate OR more likely decide to stay in their state and build it, build better lives, learn to live normally and deal with their differences.

  9. Suzanne-
    You , like so many other “progressives”, project your own values on to the Palestinians. You say “I view the two state-solution as reasonable, so they must, also.” WRONG. They make it quite clear the so-called “2-state solution” is UNACCEPTABLE. Sheikh Raed Salah, the leader of the Israeli Arab branch of the Muslim Brotherhood said ” a complete implementation of the Palestinian right of return is the only option”. Any Palestinian leader who accepts the idea of “Two states living side by side in peace and cooperation” would be branded a traitor…that is why there is no chance of it ever being agreed upon.

    The Arab-Israeli conflict is NOT over the question of “Palestinian self-determination” or “Palestinian rights”. It has nothing to do with the Palestinians. They are merely viewed as the cannon fodder on the front lines fo the conflict. The existence of Israel is abhorrent to the Arab/Muslim world and would be opposed even if the refugee problem didn’t exist. The refugee problem is not a “humanitarian problem” to be fixed by “compensation” as you indicate. It is a political weapon, instead. Any Palestinian refugee who gave up his demand to return in exchange for compensation would be branded a traitor or sell-out. Muslim religious leaders would make such a pronouncement.

    Sorry to deflate your delusions.

  10. Thank you for writing this article. Seen from abroad -Germany- it seems more and more often, as if Isreal is governed by mad, autistic men, who are masters in doing harm to their own people.

    I do not think the people of Israel has deserved this. Reading this article and the comments I believe there is still hope that things can change.

  11. Ben David- EVEN IF you are right ( note that you pick those who YOU choose to believe will hold sway with the masses) which I believe you are not based on what I have gathered, the way Israel is dealing with this is not wise ( read that “very stupid”), and self-defeating. It’s not working. The hole Israel is digging for itself is getting deeper. Or do you think this way of dealing with reality is working?- in which case we live in different realities.

    The world sees a humanitarian problem in Gaza. The world, increasingly, as militants hold their fire, sees Israel as an occupier and Israel as an apartheid state. The world is learning about Israel’s leaders and supporters antagonism (close-mindedness) to any criticism and it’s castigation of those who do criticize. Some are even calling Israel’s claim to being a democracy a fraud and worried about fascist tendencies. It’s more obvious to us here in the US that Israel’s policies hurt us in dealing with the Arab/Muslim world and with the rest of the world.

    You are right in there with those who like to group people with labels. “Progressive” ( the root of which is “progress”) is a dirty word. Are against real progress?… like things the way they have been going?

  12. Now that the Turkish version of Islamic Brotherhood (IHH) is being supported by Turkey, it is time for Israel to consider supporting an independent Kurdistan. The Kurds are oppressed far more than the Palestinians are, and Turkey regularly bombs us in Iraq, killing many civilians. The presence of an independent Kurdistan, comprising parts of Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran would be a loyal friend to the US and Israel, and be a buffer in the increasingly radical Iran-Turkish orbit

  13. Suzanne, you’re right when it comes to the election of Hamas. They ran on an anti-corruption platform and toned down the radicalism, so I would agree (and argued at the time) that the election was not a basis for judging the ideological views of the Palestinians. But Goren wrote that the Israeli withdrawal legitimized Hamas! Offering a specific causal relationship there is much more than what you deal with. Think about it — in the hands of the right-wing, it’s a talking point that says nothing can be ceded to the Palestinians without Israel suffering increased terrorism. At the same time, some pro-Palestinian folks mirror that by saying the Palestinians can never be expected to moderate their own behavior in response to any “provocation.” I have a huge problem with both views because it’s really dehumanizing to the Palestinians to deny them moral agency. This is the first I’ve seen someone like Goren say this, and I wish he’d elaborate on whether his thinking behind it suffers from the same deficit.

  14. Suzanne-
    I use the term “progressive” in quotes because Gershom and Haim in addition to other bloggers like “Jerry Haber”, MONDOWEISS and Richard Silverstein all call themselves “progressives”, of course implying that those who don’t agree with them are not “progressive”.

    Getting down to the Arab-Israeli conflict, it is important for you and others to finally realize that no political solution is possible. I understand that is difficult for people, particularly Americans to swallow, but that is the reality. Ariel Sharon came close, just before he collapsed, to coming around to your point of view….he destroyed Gush Katif and was telling everyone that he intended to unilaterally withdraw from the large majority of Judea/Samaria. “Unilaterally” because he realized what I pointed out…that the Palestinian leadership was incapable of reaching any agreement with Israel, so he intended to give them their state without the need for an agreement. The world would see that the “occupation” had ended and that the Palestinians had their state which they (falsely) claimed was their goal ever since the Six-Day War. However, HAMAS and HIZBULLAH, who violently oppose seeing Israel being given any credit by the world for having let the Palestinians set up a state immediately stepped in an began their rocket attacks in addition to cross-border raids which led to the killings of Goldwasser and Regen on the Lebanese border and the abduction of Shalit in Gaza. The result was two bloody wars.
    Had Sharon and then Olmert carrried out this further withdrawal, extremist elements would have easily gotten control of Judea/Samaria and the populated center of the country would have them been subject to bombardment.
    Thus, we see that there is no possibilty of an agreement leading to the creation of a Palestinian state and a unilateral implementation of policies that “‘progressives” advocate will mean an escalation of hostilities, such as completely lifting the blockade of Gaza which would simply mean an increasing arms race in the Gaza Strip and longer range rockets being introduced to HAMAS’s arsenal.
    YES, the current situation is difficult, but Israel has grown and prospered while its Arab neighbors have languished in the decades since 1948. What is important is NOT “peace agreements” or “setting up a Palestinian state”. It is clear that it the most violence occurs when there is “progress” in the so-called “peace process”. Arafat’s massive suicide bomber war starting in 2000 occurred when Barak was making unprecendented far-reaching concessions to him. Arafat’s response was NOT (after saying the offer was inadequate) to make a counter-offer but rather, having his back to the wall due to Israeli and American pressure to “make peace” was to prove his committment to the war with Israel and Zionism by unleashing a massive wave of death and distruction. If Obama really presses Abbas for concession, the same will follow now because he is NOT able to make these concessions and he would have to prove he is not a traitor.
    Thus, holding on, trying to improve the lives of the Arab on the ground but abandoning these fruitless attempts to reach “peace agreements” is the ONLY way to reach a modus-vivendi, which is the only thing achievable under these circumstances, and I believe it is achievable.

  15. Matt- There is a response that has been made and should be made more to that argument… (that withdrawal legitimized Hamas). Hamas IS legitimate, and is being made more legitimate by every Israeli blunder, misguided policy and action.
    It was not the withdrawal of Gaza, which was necessary, it was the way that it was done. The Sharon government weakened Abbas and moderates in the process leaving them out of the move. That it was unilateral was the not only a misguided “solution” but the cause of problems to come with regard to the responses. Why was it expected that Gazans would somehow decide that they were going to be able to build some exemplary mini-state and then why was everything done to undermine that possibility? (Israel did not give up occupation of Gaza- it was never given sovereignty, not over it’s borders or the sea or it’s airspace).

    At the time Sharon’s advisor Dov Weinglass’s statement came out about the intention of putting the peace process in formaldehyde. In other words “take this and don’t ask us for more”. So why sould it have been seen as other than an Israeli tactic in the war -not a peace move? The fearful cry from the West Bank Palestinians and in Gaza was (“Gaza first, Gaza Last”) that this was a way to end the discussion for peace-with no agreement- just unilateral moves according to what Israel decides. This would upset me too if I were a Palestinian!

    Sharon had no intention of proceeding to a viable just two state solution. He said as much. He believed in force. The Palestinians did not like the de-linking of the West Bank from Gaza either- which is what happened… which I can’t help but feel was intended. Looking at what actually happened after- the legitimate election of Hamas and the boycott and siege, this analysis of Israeli policy was correct.

    Palestinians do not love Hamas ( their popularity was low before this flotilla incident- now it has risen I understand) but they support Hamas for various practical reasons, and not all do. Hamas gets results… movement. Israel does nothing unless there is terrorism. Israeli’s seem so oblivious to the suffering a deprivations and the injustices on the other side of their checkpoints, walls, barriers where no humans worth caring about live. They don’t want to know anything about it—only their own security. But do they think deep about the causes of that existential threat?

    From Gazans, so devastated from years of siege and operation cast lead, like animals in a cage, I expect nothing but intense anger and more support of Hamas unless there is some movement and relief, some change in direction. They are the true victims at this point, not the Israelis.

    If they are treated like human beings, with dignity, I would expect a decent human response.

  16. The world needs to pay more attention to the plight of the Kurds. The Turks want another Armenian repeat

  17. Y. Ben-David’s fear of a swamping right of total return has justification. But you cannot return unless you have housing to return to. I believe in Israel all land is ultimately owned by the State, and the State decides who can buy land held in fee by an Israeli. I suggest altering this scheme so that an Israeli holding fee (title) can sell to an Israeli (as now) or a Palestinian documented as having a “right of return” through family history. The fee holding Israeli need not sell to such, but COULD. The Palestinian would have to be able to purchase the land; and, if so, the Israeli State would be obligated to protect that purchase just as if an Israeli citizen had purchased.

    Now this scheme satisfies no one. But it breaks the barrior without the feared hoard of wanting Palestinians returning. And if forces equal protection upon Palestinians buying from an Israeli–is such an Israeli can be found. I would add, of course, that the selling Israeli would also enjoy protection by the State from–angry Israelis.

    The point of this scheme is to shift attitudes slowly while breaking the hysterical population fears of nationalism. No one wins, really; but some progress in law might be possible. Frankly, I would really like to meet an Israeli so willing to sell to a “right of return” Palestinian, a Palestinian well off with money to buy.

    Absent some such creeping solution, Races, all you will do is continue to shout about how vile the other is. I reiterate a point made in some prior comment: what this convoy event MIGHT do is break history’s hold on us. And that is a yoke shared by all sides (of which, God save us please, there are so many).

    Happy shouting Ya’all!

  18. Suzanne-
    Dov Weisglass has repeatedly stated that his “fomaldehyde” statement was not meant seriously and was only made to get the settlement movement leaders to agree to the peaceful destruction of Gush Katif (“we are giving up Gush Katif to save the rest of Judea/Samaria”). It worked, the vast majority fo the residents of Gush Katif went quietly. Shortly afterwards, Sharon started saying he “changed his mind” and was now planning to give up almost all of Judea/Samaria (not counting east Jerusalem, presumably) as well. Had HAMAS not taken over, there would be a Palestinian state on at least 90% of Judea/Samaria plus Gaza today. This, of course, the Palestinians oppose, because the international community would then be led to believe that the “Palestinian problem” had been solved, which the Arab world doesn’t want to happen.

  19. Suzanne said:
    Why was it expected that Gazans would somehow decide that they were going to be able to build some exemplary mini-state and then why was everything done to undermine that possibility? (Israel did not give up occupation of Gaza- it was never given sovereignty, not over it’s borders or the sea or it’s airspace)

    There-you perfectly expressed what I have been saying-that the Arabs can not make peace because there are always going to be outstanding grievances.
    Avrum Burg, who is one of the biggest supporters of the “Palestinian Revolution” in Israel, told the Palestinians during they heyday of the “peace process” in the 1990’s that “the success of the Zionist movement was based on the fact that in the pre-state period, when the Zionists were offered something, they took it”.
    The Arabs on the other hand have the attitude “all or nothing”-and you are justifying it. WHY COULDN’T THE PALESTINIANS TAKEN SHARON’S OFFER even if there were still restrictions? The restrictions you mentioned wouldn’t have prevented economic development of the Gaza Strip, just as it did during the period of full Israeli occupation 1967-1993 (even today, Gazan’s have a higher standard of living than the average Egyptian).
    So, Suzanne, if someone like you is telling the Palestinians never to settle for less than anything, what do you think their leaders are thinking?

  20. Correction to dumb mistake on my part:
    So, Suzanne, if someone like you is telling the Palestinians never to settle for less than anything, what do you think their leaders are thinking?

    Obviously, I meant to say that Suzanne is telling the Palestinians never to settle for less that EVERYTHING.

  21. Gershom- one thing you do not see or do not mention in your article is the role of Turkey and Islamic jihadists in the flotilla -Please look into this. According to the IHT, the
    Free Gaza movement struggled to buy a small boat and then a couple of years ago, began receiving large sums of money and they were able to form a
    flotilla. Well-meaning people concerned about the citizens of Gaza were used by Turkey and Islamicist elements intent on drawing Israel into a trap. And they succeeded -to
    extremist Muslims they can show that the IDF was humilated and 10 people gloriously martyred. To liberal
    Westerners they can depict Israelis as
    cruel opressors and murderers of civilians.

  22. Response to Ben-David: It does not matter what Weinglass meant, the damage was done and it rang true to Palestinians who mistrust based on their experience and perception AND based on what Sharon was actually saying about HIS most generous plan ( 42% of the WB- cantons for Palestinians).

    About Arabs not making peace because they will always want more ( see the Arab Peace Plan of 2002 and just renewed please, NO Israeli response). I think you mean Palestinians. They have never been offered something complete and just ( fair) by the Israeli side. You know what they want… not all of Israel (this claim is an excuse to hide behind), not Sharon’s HALF a loaf, they want THEIR ( obviously theirs) part of Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza and to address the “right of return” issue ( the dispossession) in a way that does NOT threaten Israel. They have said as much. Even Hamas will deal. But you do not hear this- or you don’t think this is fair for some reason. Whatever you think, this is in accordance with international law. Israel can claim security issues, but that is a catch 22 argument and it’s very stale because all the world sees that it’s the occupation itself is what is hurting security. That extends to Iran’s opening to jihad, it’s justification ( appeal), against Israel.

    So it’s really Israel that wants it all- security, land, and standing, respect, friends in the world.

    If, after an agreement, there are any outstanding grievances, they can be adjudicated. If the Arab goal is to really annihilate Israel, not to accept Israel in the middle east, that has to be tested and proven, not surmised. If action is taken or planned in that direction then Israel has the right to protect itself with full force. But while there are legitimate grievances and Palestinians have less than what the world and international law agrees is theirs, and while Palestinians are under occupation, a cruel occupation, then they have a right to rebel, to resist.

    By the way there is a real question as to whether this Gaza blockade is legal. It’s collective punishment of people that Israel is supposed to be protecting, people under occupation.

    No Gregory- I am not converting to anything. I can, anyway, never leave my heritage. I care about moral issues… traditionally a Jewish concern.

    Eve- The test was what these people were trying to do and what they were actually bringing. It seems that one boat had people who may have links to terrorists organizations. That is less of an issue than if they were actually bringing items that were going to threaten Israelis.

    Israeli powers that be have confiscated the evidence, show us what they want, claim ( M.Oren) that soldiers were armed only with paint ball guns ( Turkey says the bodies had gunshot wounds) and Netanyahu is busy on the propaganda front. We are supposed to believe an Israeli investigation while any internationally organized one will surely get the Goldstone treatment.


  23. Suzanne, Israeli certainly continued to constrain the responses coming from Gaza. But Israel did not, because Israel is fundamentally incapable of (if we accept that Gazans are human) dictating any response. Hamas could have responded to the withdrawal differently than with rockets, and I have a problem with shifting responsibility for that decision to Israel, because it’s patronizing the people of Gaza to deny them moral agency.

  24. Matt- I don’t deny Palestinians moral agency. They made some bad choices for which they have been paying dearly. The Gaza War was such a disproportionate response to the rocket fire that Palestinians, already unhappy with Hamas, hate Israel even more. Hamas at least will fight for them. And Hamas will deal for peace too ( they have to to stay alive)… but they have not been included because of Israel’s preconditions.

    I am looking at Israel. I am more interested in Israel’s moral agency at this point: Israel’s choices given Palestinian choices. If it’s a chess game, I think of what really winning means. Winning will not be defeating, devastating , getting rid of the “enemy” ( Arabs). Arab leaders are in agreement about Palestinians. They are not pushing for the annihilation of Israel in their initiative. But I just heard today that some are thinking again of rescinding it. Why not?- it has been ignored, gone nowhere.

    Constrained responses do not get at the root of the problem.

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