Many people don’t know there is a department in the IDF Spokesperson Unit that recommends how operations should be carried out in order to try to improve the IDF’s image in the media. I understand that it can be hard to believe this department exists based on the negative coverage the IDF receives. Many armies may not need or want such a department because operational decisions would typically be based on security goals. But in the world’s most-covered army, a department to manage the message is necessary.
While I served in this department, I wasn’t in the army during the time of the Gaza-bound flotilla. I didn’t see any of the flotilla intelligence reports. I didn’t make the plan for how the IDF should deal with it. I wasn’t in the war room during the operation. However, as part of my position in the IDF Spokesperson Unit, I helped plan for many other operations. We would spend hours doing SWOT (Strength, Weakness, Opportunity, Threat) analyses of operations and provide recommendations on how they should be carried out in order to support the communication goals. For larger operations, like Disengagement, the department meticulously dissected all possible contingencies and their effects on the IDF’s image. We made recommendations on terminology, training, uniform type, and more in order to neutralize both security and media threats. With over a year of preparation, no matter how Israelis feel about Disengagement, the media loved Israel, and the IDF in particular, that summer. So, with this type of intricate planning being a part of every strategic operation, why did the flotilla operation go so wrong?
If I were to superimpose my army experience onto the planning for the flotilla, the first thing I would have done was a SWOT analysis. The first opportunity that I would have recognized is the chance to show the IDF as a humane army. Even though Israel has one of the most, if not the most humane army in the world (such as dropping fliers to warn civilians of a missile target), there are not many photo ops that can show this. Additionally, given the media’s typical David-versus-Goliath narrative, these images are not be the types of photo ops for which the media is looking. A picture of a soldier holding up a gun does not stress that he never actually pulled the trigger; it highlights the potential for force. With the goal of trying to identify more photo ops showing the IDF as a humane army, I would have identified the flotilla as the perfect opportunity.
The recommendations to arm soldiers basically with toys and crowd dispersal equipment were made because of the concerns that the media would negatively cover the operation if soldiers boarded the flotilla with weapons drawn. Even if no shots were fired, the media would have covered the operation as if the IDF had used excessive force. In order to mitigate that risk and protect the IDF’s image, soldiers’ lives were put at risk. While soldiers are trained for dangerous situations, they expect to do so with the appropriate equipment. In this situation, the soldiers were not given the right equipment and therefore they were not properly prepared for the dangers that awaited them. Had the soldiers boarded the Mavi Marmara ship with guns drawn and not been vulnerable to an attack, the likelihood that violence would have broken out would have been severely minimized, if not completely prevented.
There is reason to believe that those on board went through with their plan to attack Israeli soldiers only because they saw the soldiers’ vulnerability and seized the opportunity. This in turn caused violence to escalate and people to be injured and killed. So, if the IDF soldiers would have boarded the flotilla with weapons drawn and with more force, then that very possibly could have been enough of a deterrent to prevent violence from initially erupting.
In retrospect, it is easy to know which scenario is worse: Pictures of IDF soldiers simply with weapons drawn splashed across the front pages of all the newspapers for a day or Youtube videos of violent clashes between the IDF soldiers and the people on the flotilla, international lawsuits, chilled relations between Israel and Turkey and continued media coverage three years after the incident. But based on the intelligence reports, there was not supposed to be a threat of violence from those onboard, nor were there supposed to be weapons being smuggled into Gaza. The main threat from the flotilla was to the credibility of Israel’s maritime borders.
Therefore, at the time and based on intelligence reports, the main goal of the operation was to secure Israel’s border and prevent the inflow of weapons or other terrorist activity. With this being the defined goal, it would have been the perfect opportunity to show the IDF using gentle force. If the communications strategy of the operation was to promote the messaging of the IDF being a humane army in which force used is comparable to the perceived threat, then it would have been consistent with that strategy to arm soldiers primarily with paintball guns, plastic bullet riot dispersal handguns, and to give them orders to not open fire with lethal weapons.
However, even with the intelligence failures, the soldiers most likely would have been properly armed if there had not been fear of the negative media coverage. The ultimate decision to arm soldiers with inappropriate gear was a PR decision. Had the IDF felt as if it could make its operational decisions solely based on security concerns instead of based on how it would be covered by the media, then violence may never have erupted.
Based on the IDF’s track record for dealing with similar situations without incident, it is a reasonable assumption that the passengers would not have become violent or at the very least any threats would have been quickly neutralized, injuries would have been fewer, and likely no fatalities. The recommendation to treat this operation as crowd control was more of a PR failure than an intelligence failure. The fear of receiving negative media coverage actually caused the IDF to make a bad operational decision, which subsequently created even worse media coverage. The question becomes, does the media’s biased coverage of the IDF and its operations actually force the IDF to perform operations in an unsafe way?
Historically, the media is supposed to be an unbiased observer; however, there is an international trend for media outlets to reflect the opinions of its audience versus the actual facts. While this can improve ratings, it causes media to no longer be silent observers in the stories covered, but to now be players that actually interfere and impact outcome. The constant criticism of the IDF by the media seems to lead the IDF to feel as if it needs to constantly protect and defend its image. Without this threat from the media front, the IDF might be able to make safer and better security decisions for all people involved.