A lot of people, including some columnists for Op-Ed News, have rushed to judgment regarding the Israeli assault on the flotilla bringing humanitarian supplies to Gaza. Outrage was understandable given initial reports that made it sound as if Israeli commandos had pounced upon a mercy ship and killed ten people who only wanted to bring food to the people of Gaza who were near starvation due to an Israeli blockade. Now, a few days after the incident, it looks a little more complicated than that.
At this writing, we still don't know who instigated the violence. Dueling videos support irreconcilable accusations. An independent commission may determine the truth. For now, there are other points to make.
Most of the ships in the flotilla were sponsored by IHH, a Turkish aid organization with links to Islamist groups. Some of the activists, including those why did the fighting, were apparently IHH members. Most of the activists were no doubt there for the noblest of humanitarian reasons, yet their compassion appears to have no sympathy for Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier kidnapped in 2006 by Hamas and still held, nor have they expressed any outrage at the years of rocket and mortar bombardment of southern Israel by Hamas and its allies. That doesn't make Israel's clumsy response any more satisfactory.
Israel had declared that if the ships in the flotilla agreed to dock at the Israeli port of Ashdod, Israel would forward all of the humanitarian supplies to Gaza. Alternatively, if the flotilla activists agreed to let their ships be searched for weapons and there were none, the ships would be allowed to proceed to Gaza. That the flotilla activists refused both offers shows that they preferred confrontation to aiding the people of Gaza, though they surely did not expect the provocation to end as tragically as it did. The enterprise was designed primarily as a publicity stunt, and the Israelis fell for it. So has most of the world.
What could Israel have done differently? They should have proclaimed much more publically than they did their offer to forward humanitarian aid. If they had to resort to boarding the ships, they should have taken Red Cross officials with them as witnesses, or even delegated the task to some neutral party.
Israel's (and Egypt's) blockade of Gaza is intended to prevent weapons from getting to Hamas. Food and medicine have been allowed in all along, but only at a subsistence level. The idea was that the people of Gaza would blame Hamas for their situation and thus weaken support for an organization that has vowed to destroy Israel. Neither has happened. Turning the people of Gaza against Hamas would have been much more likely had Israel been generous in supplying food and medicine clearly labeled as coming from Israel. If any good comes out of the flotilla provocation and Israel's clumsy response it may be an opening up of humanitarian supply lines to Gaza. That will be possible only if some international body accepts the responsibility of interdicting weaponry, or Israel's right to do so is acknowledged.
There was one other reason for the blockade: pressure to get Hamas to release Gilad Shalit. Israel has offered to exchange 100 Palestinian prisoners for Shalit, but Hamas has so far refused. Why doesn't Israel publish the names of the prisoners they are willing to exchange and let their families pressure Hamas?
Recriminations are inevitable, but only peace will end the hostility. Everyone knows what that will require: land for the Palestinians and security for Israel. That will take calm, reason, trust, and a spirit of generosity.