Tel Aviv – A year ago, armed activists on a Gaza-bound flotilla surprised Israel’s navy, sparking deadly clashes that ballooned into a diplomatic crisis.
As a second flotilla gathers in the Mediterranean to again test Israel’s maritime closure of Gaza, analysts say the government is over-prepared.
Israel says it is ready this time around for any possibility: army intelligence recently warned that extremist participants might again use violence against soldiers. Meanwhile, navy seals are training with new water cannons to more effectively commandeer the flotilla vessels.
Army chief spokesman Yoav Mordechai said, “The navy is determined to prevent the breaking of the sea blockade — this is an unequivocal directive.’’
But analysts warn against expecting a repeat of last year. The 2011 flotilla will be different from last year’s after the Turkish sponsors of the Mavi Marmara cruise ship announced earlier this month they would withdraw from the flotilla — removing a massive physical obstacle from the seas, diminishing the number of participants and lowering the diplomatic stakes for new tension with Ankara.
“The nature of the flotilla changed dramatically,” said Alon Liel, a former Israeli diplomat who expressed concern that Israel may overreact after the “trauma” of last year’s surprise.
“Israeli preparations have to adjust themselves to what we are facing. The level of preparation is on too high alert. I don’t see the same dangerous ingredients of last year, that we have this year.’’
Though the owners of the Mavi Marmara didn’t say so, the decision to withdraw is seen as a move by the Turkish government to avoid another clash with Israel. Liel said that the decision could be chalked up a victory for American and Israeli diplomats who have been lobbying Ankara to avoid another showdown at sea.
Liel also suggested that Turkey has bigger problems on its plate with thousands of refugees streaming over the border amid a popular revolt in neighboring Syria.
“Turkey is very busy with Syria. It’s a new development, a big development, and they don’t want to be occupied with another problem that might take their energies when they are so busy with Syria.’’
Last year’s flotilla brought Israeli-Turkish relations to the breaking point. In the last few weeks, the two sides have been in talks on repairing their ties, according to reports in the Israeli press.
Both the United States and the United Nations have called the flotilla a potential provocation to violent clashes with the Israel Defense Forces. Israel has lobbied other European governments against encouraging the flotilla activists, arguing that the attempt to break the blockade is more of political provocation than humanitarian mission.
Whereas last year, preparations for the flotilla were mainly left to the army, the government has learned the lesson that the flotilla is more of a media event and should involve the Prime Minister’s office and the Foreign Ministry.
“This is going to be anti-climatic,” said Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar Ilan University. “The Israeli government is much better prepared.’’
Still, there has already been a miscue: on Sunday the head of Israel’s government press office threatened to ban from Israel foreign journalists who join the flotilla activists. The threat was swiftly rescinded, and the army has offered to embed journalists with the navy during the operation.
Israeli military intelligence has warned that there will be activists on the flotilla from Turkish group IHH — which Israel says is an affiliate of Hamas — even though the Mavi Marmara isn’t participating. It has also alleged that some activists will be armed with chemicals to use against soldiers.
Dror Fyler, a spokesman for the flotilla, said that the activists on the ship are committed to nonviolence. He accused the IDF of looking for an excuse to provoke violence.
As the castoff date continues to be delayed through the last week, organizers of the flotilla ships this week accused saboteurs of damaging the ships docked in Greece to prevent them from sailing. There were also allegations that the Greek government had given in to diplomatic pressure from Israel and the US to delay the boats.
After last year’s flotilla, a military committee of inquiry suggested Israel should devise a method for a “cold” stoppage of the ship to avoid clashes like last year. But no such method has been developed, according to a navy seal who has participated in the training. Instead, the army is preparing to again board the ship using water cannons and attack dogs, and has consulted with riot control specialists, according to the Jerusalem Post
“If the boats are deep at sea, it is problematic: blocking it can lead to sinking. Positioning another vessel in its way can cause a crash,” said Shlomo Brom, the former head of the IDF planning unit. Sabotaging vessels so that they are crippled at sea is also risky, he said.
Still, even if Israel comes into a face-to-face confrontation with the activists, the fact that it has lifted a ban on imports into Gaza puts it on more solid ground for public diplomacy.
The restored flow of consumer goods and industrial raw materials to Gaza has given Israel a more effective position to argue against the flotilla.
In an April report, the International Monetary Fund described the economy of Gaza trying to “catch up” to normal levels: it noted a 15 percent jump in output in 2010, (though that remains 20 percent below what it was six years ago).
Critics still say that Israeli restrictions on exports from Gaza and the ban on the import of building materials will greatly hamper any recovery in Gaza.
“There have been improvements over the last year, but we’re far from a policy of free movement,” said Sari Bashi, director of Gisha, an Israeli nonprofit that advocates for lifting restrictions on the Palestinians there.
The Israeli government, for its part, says that it is still concerned about a security risk from exports. It also says that imported construction materials could be used by Hamas to build weapons.
Egypt’s decision to relax its border-crossing regime with Gaza counts as another mitigating factor in Israel’s effort to respond the flotilla group. Though Gazans complain that the change is barely felt, Israel can claim that Gaza is open.
“Israel has made the moral point that the flotilla is not a humanitarian event, but is more of immoral support for Hamas, and designed to provide more military equipment,” said Steinberg. “I think this is going to be the last of the flotillas.”