The remark was originally made about Napoleon’s decision to kidnap the Duc d’Enghien and have him judicially murdered more than two centuries ago: “It was worse than a crime; it was a blunder.” It is often quoted when a government makes a decision—usually involving violence—that obviously harms its own cause. Like, for example, Israel’s decision to seize the flotilla of ships bringing aid to the besieged Palestinians of the Gaza Strip.
Imagine that you are the Israeli official charged with recommending the best course of action for dealing with that flotilla. Exactly what position you hold in the government doesn’t matter: somebody will have been given that job. So what things will you consider while you ponder your recommendation?
You are well aware that the purpose of the flotilla is mainly propaganda: to highlight the suffering of ordinary Palestinians as a result of Israel’s three-year blockade of the Gaza Strip. Some of the organizers doubtless hope that Israel will use violence against the aid ships, as that would give them even more publicity, but they’ll settle for just delivering the aid.
Israeli intelligence has its agents among the people organizing the flotilla, of course, so you know that there is nothing dangerous in the 10,000 tonnes of cargo. Most of it is concrete and steel to help in the reconstruction of homes and schools destroyed during Israel’s “Cast Lead” operation against Hamas militants in the Strip early last year.
The Cypriot authorities checked all the ships meticulously before they sailed for Gaza and certified that they are not carrying weapons or other dangerous cargo. The actual amount of aid is not big enough to take the pressure off the Palestinians. Israel is allowing about 15,000 tonnes in a week by land, which the United Nations says is about a quarter of what is needed. A once-only delivery of an extra 10,000 tonnes won’t change anything.
Anyway, be realistic: there’s all sorts of contraband coming into the Gaza Strip all the time through the tunnels on the Egyptian border. Why don’t we just wave these ships through as a “humanitarian gesture”? That would spoil their little propaganda game, and they don't have the resources to do it twice.
True, our military guys say that they can just arrest all the ships en route and take them to one of our own ports in Israel: no muss, no fuss. But what if it goes wrong? We’ve had one propaganda disaster after another recently, and it’s starting to do real damage.
Operation “Cast Lead” itself was not exactly a propaganda success: even our own official figures say we killed over 400 Palestinian civilians, and most people outside Israel think the number was closer to 1,000. Then there was that unfortunate announcement about building more Jewish homes in East Jerusalem while U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden was in the country—President Obama hasn’t really been speaking to us much since that.
Just last week we had a really damaging revelation about how Israel offered to sell nuclear weapons to South Africa back in the apartheid days. And now we have this flotilla thing, just as Obama has finally invited Prime Minister Netanyahu to Washington for a kiss-and-make-up session. Oh, and most of the people on the flotilla come from Turkey, the one Muslim country that sees Israel as an ally.
Do we really want to risk screwing all that up just to starve the Palestinians of an extra 10,000 tonnes of supplies? Let’s just allow the flotilla through, and get the credit for being reasonable and even magnanimous.
I presume that the above is a fair representation of what went through the Israeli official’s head as he or she considered what to do about the aid flotilla. But in the end, the decision went the other way. Why? Probably just because Israeli reflexes kicked in: an early resort to force has become the government’s default mode of problem solving in recent years.
So people said things like “We mustn’t look weak” and “What could possibly go wrong?”, and Israel launched the military operation we saw on May 31, with the results we know: at least nine dead civilians, another propaganda disaster, and its alliance with Turkey in ruins.
Israeli spindoctors try to shift the blame to the victims, but they cannot get around the fact that their heavily armed troops illegally boarded a foreign ship in international waters, and that those troops then killed at least nine foreign civilians and wounded about 30 others. Just one Israeli soldier was seriously injured, though nine others apparently suffered scraped knuckles and bloody noses.
The gradual decline of the Israel Defence Forces from a disciplined military force to an armed rabble is the result of decades of occupation duties, which ultimately rot the soldierly qualities of any army. In the occupied Palestinian territories the IDF has the right, in practice, to beat or kill practically anybody it wants, but it has not fought a battle against a first-class army for a generation.
Do the Israeli spokespersons even understand that any professional army in the West that carried out such a botched and bloody operation would immediately suspend the commanders responsible and launch a major investigation? No, probably not. They have lost all perspective on themselves.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.