Why Israel’s narrative of the flotilla attack is failing so badly

Hussein Ibish June 2, 2010 – 8:38am

To most of
the world, this is a very simple story: elite Israeli counterterrorism
commandos stormed an unarmed, civilian ship carrying aid supplies in
international waters, in order to enforce a morally indefensible and
politically counterproductive blockade, and as a consequence 10
civilians were killed and many others injured. The entire Israeli effort
since these realities became known has been to try to complicate the
picture and shift the responsibility for the bloodshed away from the
military commandos who stormed the ship, or their commanders, and onto
the passengers themselves. The effort is failing miserably, in many ways
backfiring on itself. It’s worth looking at how and why this is all
happening.

The first and most important element of its campaign has been
Israel’s effort to create a media blackout. The first move against the
ship was to try to shut down all communications and links to the outside
world. Reports suggest that commandos prioritized dispossessing and
even disabling journalists and photographers on board, reportedly
tazering an Australian photographer, Kate Geraghty. Most of the detained
activists have been held incommunicado, including many journalists who
have not been allowed any contact with their home offices or
publications. The names of the dead and any details about their injuries
have been thus far suppressed. In short, Israel’s behavior looks
exactly like what one would expect a guilty party to do if it felt it
had not just something, but plenty, to hide.

Of course, Israel has been releasing information, but in a very
fragmented and piecemeal manner, all of which has been designed to
bolster its argument that its counterterrorism commandos were trying to
storm the ship in a “peaceful” manner and were savagely, brutally,
viciously (all words dominating Israeli official discourse at the
moment) set upon by a rioting mob of terrorists. In one of its more
ham-handed gestures, Israel has displayed to the world’s press a photo
op of a pile of random ship objects in a completely unconvincing effort
to demonstrate how heavily armed and dangerous these
passenger-activist-terrorists really were. To be sure, some of the video
fragments released by Israel demonstrate there was a melee on board,
and there is no doubt that Israeli soldiers have been injured, but they
don’t demonstrate anything at all to establish a clear narrative.
Because of the media blackout, the Israeli narrative is the only one we
have, and it’s almost coherent except that nothing in it really explains
how and when the melee with the unruly activists really began and how
all of the carnage ensued. At the very least, there is a huge missing
piece, and probably many missing pieces, to the picture, even if many,
if not most, elements of the Israeli narrative are accurate. It doesn’t
even begin to explain how a large, well armed and very powerful navy was
unable to seize control of an unarmed civilian ship without killing and
injuring so many people.

And then there are the contradictions. I had an hour-long debate with
the Israeli consul general in Los Angeles, Jacob Dayan, yesterday and I
was struck by the numerous logical contradictions in the narrative he
was presenting. I almost felt sorry for him. On the one hand he was
maintaining that the reason the situation got out of control was that
the Israelis expected this to be a simple, peaceful operation (which is
why, I guess, they sent in their elite counterterrorism forces), and
were shocked by and unprepared for the alleged unprovoked eruption of
violence by the activists. On the other hand, he insisted that Israel
had no choice but to intercept the ship and do so in international
waters long before it approached the Gaza port because the Turkish NGO
involved is a group of well-known extremists and terrorists with strong
links to Hamas and Islamic Jihad, if not Al Qaeda itself, and that they
were well known to be extremely dangerous. Well, which is it? In
defending one part of the narrative, Israeli officials are insisting
they were taken completely by surprise and expected everything to be
peaceful. In defending another part of the narrative, they insist they
were well aware that the Turkish group was dangerous “terrorists,”
possibly smuggling weapons and who knows what, and that this was
therefore obviously an act of war and aggression by the forces of
Islamic jihadism. It’s pathetic.

In another miserable contradiction, echoing his boss Foreign Minister
Lieberman, Jacob (who I actually like and respect, but who I think was
in a completely impossible position) maintained that it was the clear
and stated intention of the organizers to provoke a violent
confrontation. I certainly agree, as I wrote in my last Ibishblog
posting, that the flotilla was a provocation, but it was a political
provocation, not a military provocation. Obviously a political
provocation is to be dealt with politically, and not through a military
action that results in 10 dead civilians and scores wounded. But more
importantly, if as Lieberman said, it was obvious from the beginning
that this group was "hoping for bloodshed,” why then did Israel decide
the best thing would be to oblige them and go ahead and spill large
quantities of blood? In other words, this allegation not only doesn’t
help to explain Israel’s actions, it makes them much more puzzling. And,
if this were the case, why weren’t these “terrorists” armed with more
than random items to be found on many a ship? If they came for a violent
confrontation with Israeli military forces, they certainly came
ill-prepared and the outcome strongly reflects that. The whole thing
doesn’t add up, and that’s a charitable assessment.

So, even in the context of a media blackout in which Israel controls
the overwhelming majority of hard evidence about what happened that is
available to the public, its attempts to create a coherent and
convincing narrative that explains what happened or starts to shift
responsibility away from its decision to storm the ship is a complete
failure. It’s likely to become an even greater failure as survivors
begin to be released and make public statements and, especially, when
the journalists that are being held are able to tell their stories.
Those who have been released are strongly contradicting the Israeli
version, and that’s likely to continue and intensify, especially since
it’s clear that the Israeli narrative is at best tendentious and
incomplete.

The coming days will also reveal a crucial, definitive reality:
Israel has seized possession of almost all of the documentary evidence
about the attack, especially the numerous media and recording devices in
the possession of the activists. The few who have been set free have
been released with their clothes and passports only. Obviously, there is
a huge mountain of documentary evidence, especially from the activist
side, that would clearly help to establish the facts. Israel has a few
simple options: it can give people their property back so that the
activists themselves can make use of their own documentary record, but
obviously this is extremely unlikely; it can destroy the evidence, or
selectively destroy it; it can suppress it and make limited and
propagandistic use of it in a whitewashing and non-credible internal
military/government investigation; or, finally, it can retain the
evidence and provide it in good faith to either an international
investigation or to a credible and independent Israeli investigation
headed by respected jurists with subpoena powers and the ability to
create consequences. Given the present attitude of the current Israeli
government and what is suggested by its extremely suspicious behavior up
to this point, I’m afraid I wouldn’t be surprised if it either
destroyed or suppressed some, if not most, of this evidence. If it does
so, it will be ensuring that the world’s worst suspicions will be
considered confirmed forever by many, if not most, observers.

There is only one way out of all of this for the Israelis: a
credible, serious independent investigation that has genuine integrity
and lets the chips fall where they may. In the case of many countries,
one would have reason to doubt their capacity to do such a thing.
However, Israel has successfully done this in the past, most
particularly the Kahane Commission Report into the massacres at Sabra
and Shatila in 1982. The report was not perfect, but it was serious and
credible and it had consequences. If the Israelis initiate a similar
process regarding the flotilla attack, it could avoid much of the worst
consequences that are likely to attach to this ghastly blunder over the
long run. The question is, is Israel in 2010 capable of the same
introspection it was in 1982? I don’t know the answer to that, but I am
sure that if Israel does not launch such an investigation and tries to
fob the world off with some kind of internal whitewash like the
military’s own investigation of the Gaza war, for example, an
international investigation similar to but in many ways exceeding and
more significant than the Goldstone Report is inevitable. And then, the
extremely negative consequences for Israel and for many other actors in
the region will be virtually unavoidable.

Israel’s narrative of the flotilla attack is failing completely
because it doesn’t make any sense, it doesn’t explain what happened, and
it’s all taking place in the context of an information blackout. It
couldn’t be less convincing. It’s adding insult to injury. It’s
backfiring, big-time.

»

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