Although Israel's Navy succeeded in stopping a flotilla attempting to break the Gaza blockade it lost yet another important public relations battle.
Organized in Turkey with government approval and sponsored by Insani Yardim Vakfi (IHH), a "humanitarian aid organization" linked to terrorist groups, the flotilla highlighted the IHH, garnered sympathy for Gazans, and encouraged Hamas; Israel was condemned by many in the international community. So who won?
Soldiers and passengers were injured; nine militants were killed when the soldiers were attacked and opened fire in self-defense. Could the incident have been handled better, or even avoided?
Weeks before the Gaza-bound flotilla left port, at the end May, 2010, the Israeli government was aware of the problem and the potential whiplash. Israel's Defense Ministry, under Ehud Barak, worked out plans to enforce the blockade and apprehend the ships; Israel's Foreign Ministry was responsible for PR and the legal justification for stopping the flotilla.
According to Israeli government sources, journalists were "unofficially" referred to a Danish government report on IHH, US court and CIA documents several days prior to the arrival of the flotilla. "Unofficially?" Why not officially? Why wasn't the IHH thoroughly exposed and the Turkish government held responsible?
According to the Australian-based Talk Gaza organization, which provides information on the incident, Israel's Foreign Ministry circulated information on IHH "to some people at least five days before the incident." "Some people?" Who? Why not circulate it to everyone?
"A number of journalists were also referred by various official sources to the few news articles that did discuss IHH days before the incident." How many journalists? And when? Was the FM staff overloaded, understaffed, or simply unaware of the magnitude of the problem?
Asked why a press conference wasn't called before the engagement at sea, this journalist was told: "No one would come." But, that's admitting failure before the event took place.
IHH won PR battle
A serious international incident was brewing, and Israel's Foreign Ministry didn't understand the complexity of the threat, or how to respond. The prime minister was abroad on a speaking tour. The cabinet, and especially the acting prime minister, a former chief of staff, were not apprised? Who is responsible for this mess?
The IHH had been banned from Israel some years earlier as part of the Union of Good, a terrorist organization, so Israel knew what could happen, or should have, yet essentially did nothing, except send out a few press releases. Relying on journalists to pick up the story and research the IHH, the Israeli government failed to provide the background and the urgency of the situation.
Critical videos and official responses were provided only afterwards – untimely and inadequately.
That may explain why the IHT/NYT editorialized on June 14, 2010: "The Israelis claim that Insani Yardim Vakfi is a dangerous organization with terrorist links. They have yet to offer any evidence to support that charge." The Foreign Ministry has not responded.
The IHT noted on June 17 that "Israel added the Turkish pro-Palestinian group that sent an aid flotilla to Gaza last month to its terror watch list yesterday." "Yesterday?" What took them so long?
Although the Israeli government asserted its concerns as the flotilla began, it treated the flotilla as a military objective, rather than political drama. The Gaza-bound flotilla failed to deliver its supplies and supporters, but that was never its intention. Getting world attention and recognition, the IHH won the PR battle.
The commission of inquiry, under Judge Turkel, needs to examine not only what happened during the boarding, but why preparations were so inadequate.
The author is a writer and journalist living in Jerusalem.