On the Flotilla

flotilla Like most everyone, I suspect, I am still in the process of fully processing the events (basics described here in the NYT: Deadly Israeli Raid Draws Condemnation and Raid Complicates U.S. Ties and Push for Peace).  Given that this is a breaking story, there are good reasons to be cautious in making overly strident statements or proclamations at this stage of the game.  Of course, this hasn’t stopped the predictable responses in various quarters (both pro and anti Israel) as well as the simplistic response at the Weekly Standard, where Israel can do no wrong and its all about the terrorists (The Terror Finance Flotilla).

However, I will say that one thing is clear:  the Israelis have created for themselves a massive  international relations problem.  Further, even if from the perspective of the Israeli government that they were successful from the perspective of their own policy goals, the cost of that “success” cannot possibly have been worth it.

Indeed, Daniel Drezner is pretty blunt in the intro to his post on this subject:

How badly has Israel f**ked up in its response to a flotilla intending to deliver aid to Hamas-controlled Gaza?  Pretty f**king badly.

Sure, you can argue that the people on the ships weren’t exactly Christ-like in their embrace of nonviolence.  Based on the number of e-mails I got from the flotilla organizers in the last 72 hours, they were dying for a confrontation with Israeli forces.  That said, it should be possible to gain control of an unruly ship without, you know, killing more than ten people, further worsening relaions with your primary regional ally, and forcing the UN Security Council into emergency session.

He concludes his post with: “Developing…. in a ridiculously bad way for Israel.”

Israel’s Haaretz editorializes, quite accurately (The price of flawed policy):

When a regular, well-armed, well-trained army goes to war against a "freedom flotilla" of civilian vessels laden with civilians, food and medication, the outcome is foretold – and it doesn’t matter whether the confrontation achieved its goal and prevented the flotilla from reaching Gaza. The violent confrontation, whether caused by poor military planning or poor execution, resulted from flawed policy, wars of prestige, and from a profound misunderstanding of the confrontation’s meanings and repercussions.

Exactly (and the whole piece is worth reading).

FILED UNDER: Middle East, World Politics, , , , , , , , ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    I also think that the White House’s terse statement on the incident is pitch-perfect: we regret the loss of life, we need to know more about it. Rushing to judgment regardless of the direction is just that.

  2. JKB says:

    Israel’s mistake was they sought to use non-lethal force by arming boarding party with paint ball guns. The commandos had to beg for permission to use deadly force to save their lives. This worked for 7 of the ships. The ones with actual “peace activists” useful fools. They missed what was inevitable that terrorists would infiltrate the fools and use violence. That is what happened on the eighth ship. Had the commandos been armed and organized for a hostile crew, then fewer casualties would probably had resulted since the first hostile action would have been dealt with aggressively.

    To bad the intelligence wasn’t better. Otherwise, the ship of terrorists could have simply had a catastrophic failure while in deep water.

  3. Observer says:


    Under international law, persons about a neutral ship in international waters have the right to defend themselves if boarded. Period. The Israelis had no right, under international law, to board a ship flying a Turkish flag in international waters. Period. Even if the Gaza blockade is legitimate, Israel has no right to stop any ships until they enter Israeli territorial waters. Period. Israel acted illegally. The persons on the ship were exercising their legal right to self-defense.

  4. Herb says:

    “Israel’s mistake was they sought to use non-lethal force by arming boarding party with paint ball guns. ”

    They used paintball guns??? Seriously??? I thought we were talking about the IDF and not Dog the Bounty Hunter….

  5. Max Lybbert says:

    I don’t see any way Israel could have done more than they did. As already mentioned, the commandos did board the ship armed, but they also were carrying paintball guns which were meant as a nonlethal weapon unless the commandos faced deadly force. When the commandos determined they in fact faced deadly force, they were able to use their pistols and get things under control.

    So the plan of attack was: use nonlethal tactics unless faced with lethal force. If faced with lethal force, then respond in kind. I can’t imagine a better plan than that.

    I don’t see why waiting until the flotilla was undoubtedly in Israeli waters would have produced a less-lethal result. Likewise, I can’t imagine what the people on the flotilla thought “running a blockade” looked like.

    I suspect in the future Israel will simply use more commandos and swarm the boat. I doubt they will make many other changes.

    Taylor’s main point (that this looks bad for Israel regardless of the logic behind the operation) is valid. However, from Israel’s point of view, this is simply another example of how Israel is on a tilted playing field. Not long ago, Netanyahu told the UN that Israel was losing patience with the world’s Monday morning quarterbacking (“Israel justly defended itself against terror. This biased and unjust report is a clear-cut test for all governments. Will you stand with Israel or will you stand with the terrorists? We must know the answer to that question now. Now and not later. Because if Israel is again asked to take more risks for peace, we must know today that you will stand with us tomorrow. Only if we have the confidence that we can defend ourselves can we take further risks for peace” http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/news/2347794/posts ). I don’t think Israel has been given a very encouraging answer to that question in the last several months.

  6. Herb says:

    I’m not sure about this paintball gun stuff……anyone else know if that’s true?

    I find it hard to believe for two major reasons:

    1) The IDF are pros. Arming your commandos with paintball guns is a very amateur move. Maybe if they’re trying to break up a riot, but when they’re trying to take over a ship? No, you bring real guns.

    2) Paint ball guns aren’t very good ways to kill people, and accounts vary, but Israel is saying that at least nine people died. My money says they were killed by bullets fired from real guns.

  7. Alex Knapp says:


    What’s the national security threat to Israel involved in allowing humanitarian aid into Gaza? Is giving food to hungry people a crime worthy of death?

  8. steve says:

    This was both stupid and incompetent on the part of Israel. The Somali pirates routinely take over boats without killing people. They had their own weapons taken away, according to Israeli reports, to be used against them. They could have done many other things. The flotilla announced it was leaving the day before. They had time to plan.


  9. Max Lybbert says:

    What’s the national security threat to Israel involved in allowing humanitarian aid into Gaza? Is giving food to hungry people a crime worthy of death?

    Israel sends tons of humanitarian aid to Gaza. And allows tons more ( http://www.jpost.com/Israel/Article.aspx?id=175858 ). From what I’ve been reading, there were other ships in the flotilla, and the other ships allowed their cargo to be inspected — with the understanding that once Israel determined the cargo truly was only humanitarian aid then Israels would have allowed it through. This was the only ship to not go along with that inspection.

    But the people onboard the ship weren’t killed for trying to send humanitarian aid to Gaza. They were killed for clubbing Israeli commandos in an effort to run a military blockade put in place by Israel and Egypt. It’s an important distinction.

  10. Max Lybbert says:

    Here we go: aid from the ships being passed on into Gaza: http://www.jpost.com/Israel/Article.aspx?id=177165 .

  11. Max Lybbert says:

    I’m not sure about this paintball gun stuff……anyone else know if that’s true?

    Here’s where I got it from: http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3896796,00.html

    Navy commandoes slid down to the vessel one by one, yet then the unexpected occurred: The passengers that awaited them on the deck pulled out bats, clubs, and slingshots with glass marbles, assaulting each soldier as he disembarked. The fighters were nabbed one by one and were beaten up badly, yet they attempted to fight back.

    However, to their misfortune, they were only equipped with paintball rifles used to disperse minor protests, such as the ones held in Bilin. The paintballs obviously made no impression on the activists, who kept on beating the troops up and even attempted to wrest away their weapons.

    One soldier who came to the aid of a comrade was captured by the rioters and sustained severe blows. The commandoes were equipped with handguns but were told they should only use them in the face of life-threatening situations. When they came down from the chopper, they kept on shouting to each other “don’t shoot, don’t shoot,” even though they sustained numerous blows.

  12. Herb says:

    Woah, Max, that link is pretty, um, one-sided but it does put the paintball thing to bed.

    Now I want to know who made that decision and when they’ll be resigning. If I was one of those commandos, I’d be the lippy one. “You want me to abseil down onto this ship with a @$%&* paintball gun full of pepper spray? Are you nuts?”

  13. Max Lybbert says:

    I think the paintball thing makes perfect sense. My local police department issues mace, pepper spray, tasers, semiautomatic pistols, shotguns, handcuffs, video cameras and other equipment to its officers. I remember when I lived in Southern California that the local paper once ran an article stating that the police department out there issues fully-automatic rifles to nearly all police officers.

    In any encounter with the police, the police would strongly prefer a nonviolent interaction. If the interaction becomes violent, then the police still prefer a nonlethal interaction. Only if the civilian presents “deadly force” are the police allowed to respond with deadly force.

    Clearly this wasn’t a police action. But the same principle applied. The commandos were carrying nonlethal paintball guns and lethal handguns. Their orders were to try for a nonviolent encounter (which was achieved on other boats in the flotilla), and to try for a nonlethal encounter if things turned violent. If the activists presented lethal force, the commander at the scene could then approve using lethal force; which he eventually did. Even when the commander at the scene approved using the handguns, the commandos tried to shoot the activists’ legs when possible. That is a nonlethal shot, but definitely a painful way to be neutralized.

  14. anna@israel says:

    according to the video israeli solders did not expect any violence, israel was not prepeared to this provocation. but what is funny-even though video is exsist press still blaming israel and call it agressor..

  15. Herb says:

    I think the paintball thing makes perfect sense.

    Still? After what happened?

    While I think it’s nice that the IDF deployed non-lethal weapons, it just doesn’t make any sense to send in lightly-armed commandos. If you’re going to use force, might as well make it overwhelming, right?

  16. Max Lybbert says:

    I think the paintball thing makes perfect sense.

    Still? After what happened?

    They had to decide what to carry before what happened. And carrying both nonlethal and lethal weapons onto the ship, with orders to use the nonlethal weapons first, makes perfect sense.

    The fact that no Israeli commandos died also suggests that the Israelis had sufficient firepower for their defense.

    Don’t worry, Turkey’s sending two more ships which should arrive in less than a week. Now the decision of how to enforce the blockade will come up again, and we can be sure the Israelis will be more cautious. I suspect they will (1) add more commandos (boarding from several helicopters at once), and/or (2) disable the boat and allow it to sit in the water for a few days before boarding, and/or (3) have the Egyptians along for the next interdiction effort.

  17. Wayne says:

    The “peacekeepers” shot, stab, threw grenades, beat with clubs, etc the Israeli boarding party. I suppose proper thing for the boarding party to do was to lie down and die. Give me a break.