Why Israel’s narrative of the flotilla attack is failing so badly

To most of the world, this is a very simple story: elite Israeli counterterrorism commandos stormed an unarmed, civilian ship carrying aid supplies in international waters, in order to enforce a morally indefensible and politically counterproductive blockade, and as a consequence 10 civilians were killed and many others injured. The entire Israeli effort since these realities became known has been to try to complicate the picture and shift the responsibility for the bloodshed away from the military commandos who stormed the ship, or their commanders, and onto the passengers themselves. The effort is failing miserably, in many ways backfiring on itself. It’s worth looking at how and why this is all happening.

The first and most important element of its campaign has been Israel’s effort to create a media blackout. The first move against the ship was to try to shut down all communications and links to the outside world. Reports suggest that commandos prioritized dispossessing and even disabling journalists and photographers on board, reportedly tazering an Australian photographer, Kate Geraghty. Most of the detained activists have been held incommunicado, including many journalists who have not been allowed any contact with their home offices or publications. The names of the dead and any details about their injuries have been thus far suppressed. In short, Israel’s behavior looks exactly like what one would expect a guilty party to do if it felt it had not just something, but plenty, to hide.

Of course, Israel has been releasing information, but in a very fragmented and piecemeal manner, all of which has been designed to bolster its argument that its counterterrorism commandos were trying to storm the ship in a ?peaceful? manner and were savagely, brutally, viciously (all words dominating Israeli official discourse at the moment) set upon by a rioting mob of terrorists. In one of its more ham-handed gestures, Israel has displayed to the world’s press a photo op of a pile of random ship objects in a completely unconvincing effort to demonstrate how heavily armed and dangerous these passenger-activist-terrorists really were. To be sure, some of the video fragments released by Israel demonstrate there was a melee on board, and there is no doubt that Israeli soldiers have been injured, but they don’t demonstrate anything at all to establish a clear narrative. Because of the media blackout, the Israeli narrative is the only one we have, and it’s almost coherent except that nothing in it really explains how and when the melee with the unruly activists really began and how all of the carnage ensued. At the very least, there is a huge missing piece, and probably many missing pieces, to the picture, even if many, if not most, elements of the Israeli narrative are accurate. It doesn’t even begin to explain how a large, well armed and very powerful navy was unable to seize control of an unarmed civilian ship without killing and injuring so many people.

And then there are the contradictions. I had an hour-long debate with the Israeli consul general in Los Angeles, Jacob Dayan, yesterday and I was struck by the numerous logical contradictions in the narrative he was presenting. I almost felt sorry for him. On the one hand he was maintaining that the reason the situation got out of control was that the Israelis expected this to be a simple, peaceful operation (which is why, I guess, they sent in their elite counterterrorism forces), and were shocked by and unprepared for the alleged unprovoked eruption of violence by the activists. On the other hand, he insisted that Israel had no choice but to intercept the ship and do so in international waters long before it approached the Gaza port because the Turkish NGO involved is a group of well-known extremists and terrorists with strong links to Hamas and Islamic Jihad, if not Al Qaeda itself, and that they were well known to be extremely dangerous. Well, which is it? In defending one part of the narrative, Israeli officials are insisting they were taken completely by surprise and expected everything to be peaceful. In defending another part of the narrative, they insist they were well aware that the Turkish group was dangerous ?terrorists,? possibly smuggling weapons and who knows what, and that this was therefore obviously an act of war and aggression by the forces of Islamic jihadism. It’s pathetic.

In another miserable contradiction, echoing his boss Foreign Minister Lieberman, Jacob (who I actually like and respect, but who I think was in a completely impossible position) maintained that it was the clear and stated intention of the organizers to provoke a violent confrontation. I certainly agree, as I wrote in my last Ibishblog posting, that the flotilla was a provocation, but it was a political provocation, not a military provocation. Obviously a political provocation is to be dealt with politically, and not through a military action that results in 10 dead civilians and scores wounded. But more importantly, if as Lieberman said, it was obvious from the beginning that this group was “hoping for bloodshed,? why then did Israel decide the best thing would be to oblige them and go ahead and spill large quantities of blood? In other words, this allegation not only doesn’t help to explain Israel’s actions, it makes them much more puzzling. And, if this were the case, why weren’t these ?terrorists? armed with more than random items to be found on many a ship? If they came for a violent confrontation with Israeli military forces, they certainly came ill-prepared and the outcome strongly reflects that. The whole thing doesn’t add up, and that’s a charitable assessment.

So, even in the context of a media blackout in which Israel controls the overwhelming majority of hard evidence about what happened that is available to the public, its attempts to create a coherent and convincing narrative that explains what happened or starts to shift responsibility away from its decision to storm the ship is a complete failure. It’s likely to become an even greater failure as survivors begin to be released and make public statements and, especially, when the journalists that are being held are able to tell their stories. Those who have been released are strongly contradicting the Israeli version, and that’s likely to continue and intensify, especially since it’s clear that the Israeli narrative is at best tendentious and incomplete.

The coming days will also reveal a crucial, definitive reality: Israel has seized possession of almost all of the documentary evidence about the attack, especially the numerous media and recording devices in the possession of the activists. The few who have been set free have been released with their clothes and passports only. Obviously, there is a huge mountain of documentary evidence, especially from the activist side, that would clearly help to establish the facts. Israel has a few simple options: it can give people their property back so that the activists themselves can make use of their own documentary record, but obviously this is extremely unlikely; it can destroy the evidence, or selectively destroy it; it can suppress it and make limited and propagandistic use of it in a whitewashing and non-credible internal military/government investigation; or, finally, it can retain the evidence and provide it in good faith to either an international investigation or to a credible and independent Israeli investigation headed by respected jurists with subpoena powers and the ability to create consequences. Given the present attitude of the current Israeli government and what is suggested by its extremely suspicious behavior up to this point, I’m afraid I wouldn’t be surprised if it either destroyed or suppressed some, if not most, of this evidence. If it does so, it will be ensuring that the world’s worst suspicions will be considered confirmed forever by many, if not most, observers.

There is only one way out of all of this for the Israelis: a credible, serious independent investigation that has genuine integrity and lets the chips fall where they may. In the case of many countries, one would have reason to doubt their capacity to do such a thing. However, Israel has successfully done this in the past, most particularly the Kahane Commission Report into the massacres at Sabra and Shatila in 1982. The report was not perfect, but it was serious and credible and it had consequences. If the Israelis initiate a similar process regarding the flotilla attack, it could avoid much of the worst consequences that are likely to attach to this ghastly blunder over the long run. The question is, is Israel in 2010 capable of the same introspection it was in 1982? I don’t know the answer to that, but I am sure that if Israel does not launch such an investigation and tries to fob the world off with some kind of internal whitewash like the military’s own investigation of the Gaza war, for example, an international investigation similar to but in many ways exceeding and more significant than the Goldstone Report is inevitable. And then, the extremely negative consequences for Israel and for many other actors in the region will be virtually unavoidable.

Israel’s narrative of the flotilla attack is failing completely because it doesn’t make any sense, it doesn’t explain what happened, and it’s all taking place in the context of an information blackout. It couldn’t be less convincing. It’s adding insult to injury. It’s backfiring, big-time.