Reminder: Saturday June 5 at 4 pm is our Washington DC meet-up at Union Station. Email me for details if you wish to attend.
This is the storyboard that you would definitely have heard. A ship carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza is illegally stopped by Israeli armed forces on the high seas (not Israel’s territorial waters) and then the Israeli forces open fire on aid workers killing nine of them.
What perhaps you will not hear, at least not so readily, is that the humanitarian flotilla was the brainchild of an organization called IHH which has been linked to dispatching Jihadi fighters to different battle hotspots and also have been known to be involved with the Al Qaeda Millennium Bomb Plot at Los Angeles airport. In other words, this was not your Red Cross mission of mercy. The ship was full of “peace workers” singing songs whose lyrics essentially called for death to Jews [Video from Al Jazeera] and for quite a few, their stated aim (as told to the camera in the previous video) was to attain martyrdom (which shows that they were there just to precipitate conflict). When the Israeli soldiers landed they went at them with whatever they could, threw one soldier off the railing (all captured on video)—-again not so much to inflict a victory by superiority of forces but to force a reaction. And they got one. The exact one that they wanted.
This incident is interesting to me for several reasons. First of course there is the whole issue of legality. The blockade imposed on Gaza by Israel is definitely illegal as per international law. In that respect, the Israeli soldiers had no legal rights to enter the ship. Plain and simple. However this is where things get murky. The Gaza strip is controlled by Hamas,whose explicit stated aim is the decimation of the state of Israel and the annihilation of Jews. They are not coy about this.
The Gaza strip has, in the past, been used several times to launch missile attacks against Israel and the Israelis have retaliated with equal brutality. Given that a state of war exists between the two countries, and given the nature of the passengers and the organization that was sending the flotilla, would it have been pragmatic for Israel, considering that their neighbor wants to wipe them out from the face of the earth, to allow the ship to pass without ascertaining whether it had weapons or perhaps even a bunch of “fighters” , the kind of which IHH, in particular, is famous for dispatching? It is an interesting legal conundrum for a nation under siege, one without any definite answers.
The second reason I find this interesting,as someone interested in the Middle East conflict, has been the role of Turkey. According to historians like Vali Nasr, one of the defining motifs of the Middle East conflict has been the competition among Arab nations to emerge as the flag-bearer of the Arab cause, principally by providing leadership on the issue that unites everyone in the region (except the Jews of course)—-the fate of Palestine. Initially it was Egypt, which had traditionally seen itself as the leader of the Arab world, that tried to take the lead through military campaigns launched by the largely secular socialist regimes of Nasser and Sadat. Their humiliation at the hands of Israel (everytime they fought Israel, it gained more and more Arab territory) led to the rise of radical Islam as the “solution” to the Arab problem, a movement that had its origin predictably in Egypt (Syed Qutb, the guru of Osama, being an Egyptian dissident who died in an Egyptian prison). Then Iraq, under the socialist and secular Ba’ath regime of Saddam Hussein, tried its luck but it too lost its power and influence in the process.
As radical Islam became more and more popular, the secular regimes of Egypt and Iraq increasingly turned right. But to no avail. The leadership of the Arabs then passed over to the most right wing country of all—Saudi Arabia.It is said that they were the ones who provoked the megalomaniac Saddam to attack Iran as a win-win strategy—if Iraq won then the Shia regime of the Ayatollah would be destroyed (the Saudi princes being very scared of the bad example set by the Iranian-type revolution—of clerics overthrowing a king). And if Iran won, then Saddam, their main rival for Arab leadership, would be finished. It was when Saddam realized how he had been had by the Saudis that he invaded Kuwait, sent Scuds into Israel to tell the Arab world that it was he who was fighting Israel whereas the Saudis, who were siding with the Americans, were traitors. This of course led to the first Gulf War and finally to Saddam’s ruination.
With their victory in the Gulf War, the Saudis had the ascendancy. Their tactics had historically been different from those of Egypt and Iraq. Instead of a direct engagement with Israel, they used their petro-dollars to finance local terrorist movements in the West Bank and in the Gaza strip, especially inciting those elements which subscribed to their flavor of Islamo-fascism, most noticeably Hamas. As time went by, Hamas became more and more powerful at the cost of the more secular, left wing Fatah whose leader was the legendary Yasser Arafat.
But direct confrontation was still demanded by the Arab on the street. Iran, a country which by virtue of being majority Shia had historically been kept off the Arab table (According to Valy Nasr, Shias being considered an even bigger enemy for Sunni radicals than even Jews) was now doing its bit to step into the vacuum. Leveraging their oil money and their friendship with Syria, they started a proxy war against Israel through Hezbollah in a bid to show their “Arab credentials” (though they arent really Arabs) , a fact that did not go down well with the Sunni powerhouse Saudi Arabia and their proxies, the Hamas (It is little known that the strongest condemnation of Hezbollah attacks on Israel come from Saudi media).
Throughout this tumultous history, Turkey remained an enigma. Despite having the second largest army in NATO after the US and despite being one of the most well-off Muslim countries with a strong Arab population, it had always adopted a hands-off approach to Palestine (it was the first Muslim majority country to recognize the state of Israel , as early in 1949) . In an interesting conversation I had with a Turkish researcher while at Stanford, he told me how the Turkish government had always tried to gain acceptance as part of Europe rather than as a constituent of the Arab world. Hence it had historically maintained a very good relationship with Israel and ,though it made populist noises in favor of Palestine from time to time as a sop to its population, it remained one of Israel’s biggest friends. However with the growth of radical sentiments inside Turkey, the country now sees it fit to make a play for the leadership of the Arab world and this provocation of Israel is to be seen in that light, a possible opening of a whole new front in this impossibly complicated multi-party struggle for hegemony.
As someone primarily interested in sub-continental politics, what is most interesting for me however, more than the role of Turkey, is the difference between India and Israel in their reactions to provocation, being in similar boats—- — democratic countries with strong militaries, surrounded by antagonistic countries on many sides, eager to provoke them to conflict over disputed territories.
Let us consider a hypothetical situation. Pakistan has been taken over by the Taliban who publicly declare their intention to wipe out India. Just to show they mean business, they send over a few rockets to this side. Then on international waters India sees a ship coming towards Karachi, sent by an organization that specializes in sending Jihadi fighters and lethal arms and ammunition. It however claims to be on a peaceful mission. Now what would India do then?
In actuality if this happened, India would be able to do nothing because it would not even know that such a ship existed in the first place. I mean we have no idea even as to who is in our waters, as evidenced on 26/11, such is the state of our intelligence. But even assuming we did, I am pretty sure that we would let the ship pass, deciding it to be too troublesome to do anything.
Consider another situation. During the Kargil war, the Pakistani forces were getting re-enforcements through Pakistani territory enabling them to dig in deeper and inflict further damage to Indian forces. The war would be much easier to fight for India if we made a foray into Pakistani territory and cut off supply lines. But we never did that and instead took the resultant damage in terms of loss of life.
How would Israel have reacted in this situation? Would they, like India, have cared for world opinion given that the world was silent on Pakistani aggression (because Pakistani fighters were not in uniform) but were ready, fangs bared, to jump on India should it step on Pakistani soil, even though in a purely defensive action?
We know the answer. They would not have cared even a bit.
This is because Israel and India approach the same problem from totally different directions. For Israel, an Israeli life and particularly that of a soldier is a non-negotiable. They pretty much prefer to show the middle finger to the UN and to everyone else in the world rather than put a single Israeli’s life in jeopardy. For that they are prepared to hit international law and conventions for a six—-raid ships on the high seas, go into enemy territory to kidnap suspected terrorists, throw a missile or three. If they were fighting Kargil, they would have just said “If one soldier’s life can be saved by going into Pakistani space, we are going in. Let the world hate us for it. They will perhaps hate us anyways”. Of course Israel can afford to be so gung-ho and aggressive because USA has always had its back, no matter what they do, including indefensible crimes against humanity like the Sabra and Shatila masscare.
In India, however an Indian life is expendable. We do not care. More so if it is an Army man. There are not many countries in the world where, when a battalion of paramilitary forces is wiped out, there will be intellectuals, feted by the press, congratulating their murderers while most citizens stay more concerned about IPL than that small incident. For us, death of our citizens is not a non-negotiable. Public opinion and perceived correctness is more a concern. Hence we adopt a more hands-off approach—taking action just when the pin on the grenade lands at our feet. Again unlike Israel, we have no powerful backers and so one misstep ,we know, we will have the whole world with their boots on our necks. So you cannot blame India also for being perennially on the back foot.
The emotional reaction in India, typically after a terrorist attack, is often a cry of— “India should be more like Israel”. But should it? Let us go back to the flotilla. A number of Israeli military men go onto the deck. Should they have? Perhaps yes. Perhaps no.
Once they do enter, they are attacked by small weapons. The protesters who were “Death to Jews” to the cameras are probably repeating that when they see actual Jews. One of the Israeli forces is hurled from the railing. The commanding officer sees his men at risk and following the dictum “One Israeli life is too much” gives the order to use lethal force. There are many ways to deal with violent crowds, especially when you yourself aren’t exactly on solid legal ground. Shooting them down isn’t really the only way. However it is the most vengeful. And it is the one which sends the “Dont mess with us” message the best.
This aggressiveness of the Israeli often admired is however also their Achilles heel. It makes them deadly predictable. You see many of those men did not mind getting killed (As one says on the video—there are two happy endings—-Gaza or martyrdom) as long as it was for the cause. If not this flotilla then there would have been a more provocative flotilla down the line. And the Israelis, given the way they are, would fall for the bait sooner or later. They fell for it sooner.
The Turkish government reacted with well-rehearsed fury, getting the applause of the Arab world and their citizens. Which is exactly what they too wanted. The world attention now goes right back to the siege of Gaza. Protests take place everywhere. The UN passes resolutions of condemnation. Passions against Israel are stoked. Unlike other years, the US president, with the Nobel Prize in advance, is very wary of world opinion and so the US support is much more muted than the past.
In short, Israel has screwed itself. Badly. Simply because of its predictable, unreasonable macho-ness.
Maybe, from a purely strategic point of view, being “spineless” once in a while isnt such a bad thing after all.
We Indians however take it to another predictable extreme.
That is, of course, our problem.