An estimated 19 people are dead. The world united in condemnation (of various degrees; my favourite is the “…regrets the loss of life” formulation, which says nothing at all really: the US, UN, UK and Tony Blair are all culprits). Israel’s really messed this one up. But what exactly did they think was going to happen? How could intercepting a ship full of angry activists, in international waters, not end badly? Surely someone could foresee this.
So: has the famous Israeli PR machine lost the plot? Or, is a more cunning strategy at play here? For the answer to this question, one only needs to look at how Israel usually handles confrontation; that is, how it deals with the Palestinians.
Israeli behaviour toward the Palestinians often appears contradictory. On the one hand, Israel condemned and punished radical groups like Hamas, while on the other Israel’s overt, unnecessary aggression in the Palestinian territories encouraged Hamas’s existence. A minor but illustrative example: every Friday, a group of Palestinians, Israelis and internationals gather outside the mosque of the small West Bank Palestinian village of Bil’in. They’re here with banners and slogans, to protest the incursion of the security wall into traditional village farmland. A disjointed march to the fence ensues, where Israeli troops wait, armed with tear gas, noise machines, rubber bullets and, on occasion, raw sewage. These weapons, in varying combinations, are deployed every week to disperse the protest, despite the fact that the protest is completely peaceful (bar a few poorly-aimed stones). Such a disproportionate response leaves protestors more bitter and angry than when they began; it is a response designed to drive people further away from the middle ground, to make people less amenable to peaceful, moderate solutions.
This template is repeated in almost all of Israel’s actions in Palestine, from the aggressive settlement expansion policy to the alleged war crimes committed in the 2009 war on Gaza, with each overly aggressive reaction pushing more people away from compromise into the arms of radical groups such as Hamas. In other words, Israel’s actions and reactions help to create the very radical groups which it claims to despise.
This much is an observable conclusion, and not particularly revelatory; what is more interesting is the motivation for this strategy of radicalisation. Underpinning it is a truth which is whispered but rarely vocalised: that Israel is happy with the status quo. That Israel – with all the land, all the prosperity, and now with increasingly effective security – sees peace as bringing not benefits but concessions, concessions which pose a much more serious threat to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Israeli state than do Hamas or Islamic Jihad. Imagine a Palestine united under a peaceful, moderate and forgiving political party; the international pressure on Israel to strike a deal and to make real concessions would be near irresistible. However, a fractured Palestinian opposition, with the radical, militant and terrorist Hamas in the ascendancy is easy to ignore; indeed, under the rubric of the war of terrorism, Israel is actively encouraged to ignore such groups. By pushing Palestinians towards radicalism, Israel is carefully ensuring that there is no partner on the Palestinian side with whom it must strike some kind of meaningful bargain.
This tactic isn’t new. The apartheid government in South Africa employed it to great effect, pushing the ANC from a relatively peaceful and moderate opposition party to a fully-fledged militant organisation; a move which allowed the ANC and its members to be demonised, a key factor in securing the continued support from white South Africans and the international community for apartheid’s racist policies.
And this is the policy that Israel tried to enact today in the seas (just) outside Israel. Board the boats; use some violence; pin it on Al-Qaeda and Hamas links; and push otherwise moderate, peaceful protestors further away from the middle ground, making them even less of a threat. But Israel has – perhaps fatally – misjudged the international mood, and does not realise that they have turned into the bad guys. And far from pushing opponents away from the middle ground, they have just pushed themselves away from the middle ground, and are increasingly seen as stubborn, selfish and abusive.
What has worked for so long against the Palestinians will not work against the whole world. Israel’s misjudged this one, and it is only a matter of time before they will pay the price in the form of serious political concessions, be it lifting of the blockade or real talks with the Palestinians (including Hamas).