The ugly confrontation between Israel's Navy and a flotilla of Free Gaza activists seventy miles from the Gaza Coast Monday morning is causing an international uproar. Turkey, which has some indirect responsibility for the episode since the blockade-breaking effort was organized in Istanbul, has recalled its ambassador from Israel, the EU is calling for an investigation, Greece has canceled military exercises with Israel, and there is condemnation from across the Arab and Muslim worlds. The international pressure on Israel is likely to ramp up in the coming days as the Free Gaza and other Palestinian activist groups seek to capitalize on the public relations disaster for Israel.
The Israelis clearly found themselves in an extraordinarily difficult circumstance. By all reports, the Free Gaza flotilla cargo was strictly humanitarian. Still, Israel was concerned that if the flotilla were allowed to enter Gaza's water, effectively breaking the blockade, Hamas and other violent groups would have a new corridor for weapons smuggling to exploit. One option now is for Israel to shift its policy from a blockade to a quarantine in which it would allow ships to pass after boarding and searching them. This would have the dual benefit of allowing critical goods into Gaza while relieving some of the international pressure on Israel. It is important to note that the Israelis offered to off-load the flotilla's cargo in the port of Ashdod, located along Israel's Mediterranean coast to the north of Gaza, and transfer it via the UN to Gaza. The Free Gaza activists rejected that option.
At the same time, the Israelis are now confronting a public relations nightmare. Although video of the incident clearly shows that the Free Gaza activists were intent on confronting the commandos with batons and chains, the deaths of at least nine activists places Israel on the defensive. The additional international pressure that is likely to come could force the Israelis to alter their policy. Although in the early going they seem to be steadfast, expressing regret for the loss of life, but not for the interdiction operation, the Israelis have been forced to back down before. The international outcry over the accidental bombing of Lebanese civilians in Qana in 1996 forced the Israelis to curtail their military operations against Hizbollah. A similar incident in the 2006 war in Lebanon had the same effect. Still, when it comes to Gaza the Israelis have demonstrated significant resolve.
The incident is likely to complicate the Obama administration's Israeli-Palestinian proximity talks only momentarily as the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas seeks to avoid the politically uncomfortable position of negotiating with the Israelis at the same time the international community is condemning Jerusalem. Washington is in the awkward position of splitting the difference between support for Israel and its security concerns with the problems that Gaza presents--an issue on which the Obama administration has been fairly quiet. The biggest fallout is the potential breach in Israel-Turkey relations, which have been in decline for some time. It seems both governments were looking for an opportunity to push their relations to the brink. In the incident in the Mediterranean early this morning, which the Turkish foreign minister called an act of "piracy," they got what they wanted.