Most people will not want to hear the truth about the calamity that unfolded when Israeli forces boarded a flotilla aiming to break the blockade of the Hamas-run Gaza territory. Demonstrations, indignation, flag-burnings, interviews and lectures will offer two sharply different accounts of the events that left nine people dead, many more wounded and Israel's international standing under withering assault. The truth, however, will prove deeply disappointing to both Israel and its enemies.
One narrative already echoes the damning indictments, the caricatures we have seen painted before. Israel is a country of unrestrained brutes, they will say, pointing to the latest bloodshed as further evidence of the country's viciousness. One spokesperson for the flotilla and some of the more-radical organizers say Israeli soldiers had started shooting and killing even before they dropped from helicopters in the pre-dawn darkness onto the deck of the Mavi Marmara, one of six ships carrying anti-Israel activists to deliver supplies to Gaza.
The other version, the one from Israel, claims the Israelis had no choice. They tried to defend themselves as they conducted an operation to protect their land, and the loss of life was all but unavoidable.
The inescapable truth is that Israel made a terrible mistake. It's hard to think of a worse outcome for Israel, or one more favorable to its enemies. Killing activists is the last thing Israel wanted to do because that would -- and did -- prove disastrous for Israel. Clearly, Israeli intelligence and military tacticians failed spectacularly to prepare for an eventuality that was predictable. This incident will go down as one of Israel's dark moments. The full measure of the damage remains unknown.
Maritime-law specialists generally agree that Israel was within its legal right to board the ships. Israel is at war with Hamas, whose stated goal is to destroy Israel. Hamas imports weapons from Iran, as well as parts and equipment for making the weapons it uses to kill Israelis. The blockade by Israel and Egypt is legal -- and internationally recognized and respected. Israel warned the flotilla and offered an alternate route for delivery of its cargo to Gaza. The activists refused. Still, nobody should have died.
Israelis say, and the evidence indicates (see www.youtube.com/user/idfnadesk) that the so-called peace activists had prepared for the moment. Commandos boarded the first five ships without incident. But then, still expecting nonviolent demonstrators, they dropped onto the last ship brandishing their crowd control paint-ball guns. The activists assaulted them ferociously with metal rods, knives, bats and firearms. When an Israeli commando lay unconscious on deck, Israelis pulled their side arms and started firing live ammunition.
It should never have come to this. A look at the organizers of the so-called Freedom Flotilla should have told Israel all it needed to know about what they would encounter on board.
One of the flotilla's key organizers was the Turkish Humanitarian Relief Foundation or Insani Yardim Vakfi (IHH). IHH conducts humanitarian work around the world, but is much more than a feed-the-poor outfit. IHH belongs to Ittilaf al-Kheir, the "Union of Good," based in Saudi Arabia, directed by the influential cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi. Qaradawi, a leading scholar of the radical Islamic Brotherhood, has encouraged Muslim women to become suicide bombers for the high purpose of killing Israeli civilians, specifically including Jewish women and children.
The Turkish government, which has recently started moving away from a friendly relationship with Israel in favor of closer ties with Muslim nations, now defends IHH. But in a criminal investigation in the late 1990s, Turkish authorities arrested several IHH leaders who were stockpiling arms and reportedly preparing to fight with Muslim forces in Afghanistan, Chechnya and Bosnia.
As they departed, IHH flotilla members appeared on Al Jazeera chanting fiery Islamic battle themes. "Oh, Jews," they cried, "the army of Mohammed will return!" One interviewee said their destiny was Gaza or martyrdom. The message could not have been clearer. Yet, the once-vaunted Israeli army launched an operation that treated IHH militants as if they were college activists in tie-dyed tee-shirts.
If history is forecast, Israel's explanations to the world will be followed at home by unforgiving internal criticism. Then the truth of Israel's blunder will become inescapable. Yes, Israel had a right to protect itself. But, to a large degree, it should blame itself and its leaders for the disaster.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Frida Ghitis writes on international affairs.