The facts are still not completely in and will undoubtedly be the focus of much dispute, but it appears that while it was in international waters Israeli forces stormed the “freedom flotilla” headed to Gaza with humanitarian aid and several hundred pro-Palestinian activists, including Turkish parlamentarians, a holocaust survivor and a nobel laureate. The Israelis claim that their commandos were attacked with clubs and knives as they rappelled onto the lead vessel, and that soldiers opened fire when one of the commandos had his weapon seized by an activist. Estimates are that around 16 people were killed and 30 wounded. The flotilla is now being towed to Haifa, were the six vessels will be inspected and the surviving activists presumably arrested and deported. Since the flotilla sailed from Turkey and was organised in part by a Turkish-based Islamic charity, the Turkish government has demanded an explanation from Israel as to why it resorted to force.Â
This is not a good look for Israel and no amount of PR spin is going to undo the image of soldiers gunning down unarmed civilians. I will not be surprised if the Israelis produce weapons caches found on the boats and a number of purported Hamas infiltrators amongst those on board as proof that the flotilla was up to no good, but even if that were a true discovery and not a staged justification, its reputation for callous disregard for the lives of those who even peacefully oppose its policies will be reaffirmed. On the other hand, deliberately attempting to break the three year old blockade after being warned by the Israeli navy to not enter its waters was a foolhardy, if courageous thing to do given Israel’s reputation and track record when it comes to the use of force.
Some might wonder why on earth Israel would do such a thing knowing full well that it will be universally condemned for doing so. The answer is simple. Like North Korea they have a garrison state mentality in which internal political dynamics and an oversized conception of threats far outweigh any concern with external reactions. Israel gave up a long time ago worrying about how its actions will be perceived by the international community. Its major concern is to not appear weak. Whatever their other differences, the Israeli political elite is virtually unanimous in its support for a hard-line defense policy, to include the blockade. It is a mindset that external actors do not share but which is compelling to them. Anything that could appear to be an exploitation of a point of Israeli weakness (such as successfully running the blockade) is seen as an existential threat. Â Thus killing activists who dared to challenge Israel’s commitment to enforcing the blockade is seen as a fair price to pay for maintaining its image of toughness. What is more, the Israeli government believes that its Arab neighbours as well as others in the international community quietly respect its toughness, which serves as both a deterrent as well as a reaffirmation that it is here to stay, on its own terms.
Since the Palestinians receive little more than rhetorical support from the Sunni Arab world, Israel also knows a hard fact that the North Koreans understood when they torpedoed the South Korean frigate in March: there is nothing anyone can really do about the kilings beyond rhetorical condemnation and meaningless UN sanctions (and it will be interesting to see if Israel receives a UNSC sanction while North Korea does not). Although it may engage in some diplomatic retaliation, Turkey is not going to declare war over this incident. No other state or coalition of states are going to mount a counter-blockade that would invite an Israeli armed response, and economic and trade sanctions, even if they were to be applied, will be happily circumvented by the numerous “quiet” partners Israel has around the world. As an old Latin American phrase puts it, impunity has its own reward.
The point being that what appears outrageous to the outside world makes perfect sense to Israeli decision-makers given their garrison state mentalities. Had the flotilla organisers understood this, perhaps they would have thought twice about challenging the blockade. Had the Turkish government understood this, they would have been better served by dealing with the political wrath at home caused by their denying the flotilla permission to leave port rather than deal with the violent protests now occurring in the aftermath of the commando raid.
One thing is certain: specific differences notwithstanding and adjusting mutatis mutandis for context, ideology and circumstance, Israel is the North Korea of the Middle East. Both have been in a de facto state of (undeclared) war with their closest neighbours since the moment of creation/partition. Both of are driven by extreme security rationales born of the perception of imminent threat, real or imagined. Both have gone both nuclear and ballistic. Both see conspiracy in the far abroad. Both have repeatedly practiced a remarkable disregard for international convention. Both believe that they have the moral high ground. Both use military diplomacy as the leading edge of their approach to regional conflict. Both have hawk and dove political factions (and in society) Â that are nevertheless united in their stand on the physical integrity of their borders. Both have larger patron states that provide them with physical and diplomatic cover. Both have hard-line zealots in positions of governmental authority. Both will kill innocents to make their point.
In that light Israel’s bellicose (ir)rationality, just like that of the North Koreans, may seem odd to us. It makes perfect sense to them.