An Exaggerated Response: Israel Falls into the Trap

A Commentary by in Jerusalem

Israel has sparked global outrage. At least 15 people were killed when the Israeli military stormed a flotilla carrying pro-Palestinian activists on Monday. In addition to being a human tragedy, it is also a political catastrophe for Israel. It has provided its critics around the world with fresh ammunition.

A television grab made from the Turkish TV channel Cihan News Agency shows an Israeli commando member storming the "Mavi Marmara" Turkish aid boat off the coast of the Gaza Strip. Zoom
AFP / Cihan

A television grab made from the Turkish TV channel Cihan News Agency shows an Israeli commando member storming the "Mavi Marmara" Turkish aid boat off the coast of the Gaza Strip.

The pro-Palestinian organizers had described the fleet with which they had hoped to break through the Israeli sea blockade of the Gaza Strip on Monday morning as a "humanitarian aid convoy." But as the Israeli army stormed the largest ship, the Mavi Marmara, the activists they encountered were in no way exclusively docile peaceniks. Some of the "peace activists" received the Israelis with crow bars and sling shots. Some of the self-professed "human rights activists" reportedly even tore the weapons from soldiers and began to shoot.

That's not what a peaceful protest looks like.

But the reaction from Israel, a state which proclaims to adhere to the rule of law, was far from appropriate. Regardless how prepared to engage in violence the organizers of the ship convoy might have been: With at least 15 dead, all on the side of the activists, and more than 30 injured, some seriously, one thing is certain: Israel carelessly threw one of the most important principles of the application of military violence overboard: the proportionality of military force.

Photo Gallery

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Photo Gallery: Attack at Dawn

On Sunday, French philosopher Bernard Henri Levy, speaking about Israel's military, said he had never seen "such a democratic army, which asks itself so many moral questions." But it is doubtful he would repeat that sentence following Monday morning's incident. And a number of questions remain to be answered:

  • Why did Israeli soldiers shoot at the passengers from helicopters flying overhead?

  • What did the Israeli navy board the ship when they could have simply blocked the ships' paths?

  • And why did Israel strike in international waters, long before the fleet had arrived in Israeli waters?

Free Publicity for Israel's Opponents

In Jerusalem, officials are claiming Israel only exercized self defense. They say the activists used "extreme violence," and that they alone are responsible for the high number of victims. But it is Israel which carries the primary responsibility. The military behaved impulsively. It overreacted and showed no compassion for the victims.

"We call on the world not to fall into the trap of this provocation," Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon said.

But his country showed just how disproportionately it reacts to provocation -- consequences be damned. And the consequences go beyond global condemnation.

Arabs living in Israel have taken to the streets because Sheikh Raed Salah, one of the leaders of the Israeli Arab Islamic Movement, was among those injured in the military action. Members of Hamas, too, whom Israel has now given a free moment of global publicity, pilloried the blockade of the Gaza Strip before the cameras of international broadcasters. And Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was forced to cancel a planned visit with US President Barack Obama on Tuesday, thus further straining an already tense relationship.

Israel was fair in arguing that there is no humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza. For most of the Palestinians living along the coastal strip, life is anything but comfortable because Israel refuses to allow many goods to enter into the country. But nobody is starving. Nevertheless, with its heavy-handed military action, Israel has created the impression that it has something to hide in Gaza.

Former Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban once quipped that the Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity (for reaching peace).

With Israel, precisely the opposite is true: In times of crisis, Israel seems to search for opportunities to turn the world against it.

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