As Israel gets an international scolding for the deaths in a botched Israeli raid on the Gaza freedom flotilla that challenged Israel’s three-year blockade on the coastal strip, the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has come under a storm of criticism from Israelis themselves.
Though there was little sympathy for the nine activists killed and dozens injured in the clash on the Marmara passenger ship, Israelis are frustrated with their leaders for walking into what they say was a transparent “trap” of confrontation with pro-Palestinian activists – and botching the mission.
“It’s the military failure combined with the international damage. Most people could live with that if it had been done successfully,” says Tom Segev, a leading Israeli historian. “It’s not that people are angry that people in Gaza are hungry. It was an operation that was ill-conceived and didn’t go well enough. They hate when things go wrong.”
In the heat of the frustration, there were signs of a possible political crisis for Mr. Netanyahu. A front-page column in the centrist daily newspaper Maariv demanded the resignation of Defense Minister Ehud Barak. In addition, a parliament member from the dovish Meretz Party called on the government to appoint an independent inquiry commission.
Meanwhile Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, arguably Netanyahu’s strongest ally in the Arab world, lifted Egypt’s blockade on the Gaza Strip and allowed aid to be delivered through the Rafah crossing.
‘We fell into a trap’
Public outrage after Israel’s botched war against Hezbollah forced the appointment of such a commission, and prompted popularity ratings for former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to plummet. As then, some Israelis today believe that political leaders relinquished power and decisionmaking ability to the military, says Asaf Meydani, a political science lecturer at the College of Tel Aviv and Jaffa.
“It was stupid on our part. There was no way the mission could have been done properly. It’s the government’s fault, I don’t blame the soldiers,” says Maureen Bassan, a retired English teacher. “I don’t believe the activists were humanitarian. They knew this was a way to get Israel to do a stupid thing, and I don’t like the fact that we fell into the trap.”
Though Netanyahu and Barak visited wounded soldiers in Israeli hospitals to show a united front with army top brass who said the commandos acted properly, political leaders privately acknowledged that the storming of the boat went off script. “It was a messy operation,” says a senior Israeli official.
Israelis disturbed by video footage
Israelis said they were disturbed by black-and-white video footage, which the army says shows activists beating commandos with clubs and even casting one soldier over the side of a ship deck.
“It’s not the nicest feeling in the world” to watch the video, says Tomer, a software engineer. “Soldiers were coming down and [activists] were waiting to attack them. It was bizarre that they went one after the other into the situation.”
Beyond frustration with the lack of preparedness and the diplomatic defensive, there was speculation that the Jewish state had lost the moral high ground to Hamas in the Gaza standoff. One columnist drew a comparison to the Exodus refugee ship in 1947, whose mission to bring Holocaust survivors to the Holy Land was stopped by British forces in the Mediterranean. The incident helped spur international opinion to end the British mandate in Palestinian and create a Jewish state.
“This is the Palestinian Exodus,” wrote Ari Shavit, a centrist political commentator, in Haaretz. “In one threat of folly, the government of Israel succeeded in positioning [Hamas] as the victims and the Israeli Navy as an Navy of Evil.”