Remember when the Israeli Defence Force was regarded as one of the finest militaries in the world? That myth was finally laid to rest this week by the disastrous assault on the flotilla ferrying aid to the Gaza strip. The raid by Israeli commandos in international waters which left at least nine peace activists dead was just the latest IDF operation condemned for its ‘disproportionate use of force’.
Having witnessed the IDF in action in the West Bank and Gaza, I can’t say I’m surprised, though I confess there was a time when I bought into the IDF mythology. Back when I was a young soldier with the British military, the Israelis conducted the legendary counter-terror operation on Entebbe Airport in Uganda. The raid on Entebbe left me and many others with the impression that the IDF was a first-class military. I admired them greatly until 2002 — when I began advising media clients in the West Bank and Gaza.
Seeing the IDF operate at ground level was one of the biggest wake-up calls of my adult life. Over a period of fourteen months, I watched members of the IDF conduct themselves more like thugs than professional soldiers. The heavy handed tactics employed not only against Palestinian civilians but members of the media attempting to cover the conflict saddened and sickened me in equal measure. I personally was on the receiving end of a completely unwarranted and unprovoked assault by IDF bullies who shoved an assault rifle into my forehead even though I was unarmed. My crime? They didn’t like what my clients were reporting. The soldiers let me go with a few broken fingers.
What I saw in the West Bank and Gaza was not a first-class fighting force but something much scarier – a third-class military with first-class technology. Some will argue, and rightly so, that every military suffers from isolated incidents of unprofessional behaviour. But the IDF has demonstrated a clear pattern of resorting to disproportionate force when it encounters resistance. This cannot be explained away as a ‘few bad apples in the ranks’. The rot is from the top on down.
You only have to look at the video clip the IDF released of the assault on the Mavi Marmara passenger ship as evidence of poor leadership. Mind you, this clip was released to defend the IDF, but there’s plenty there to condemn the planners of the operation such as the decision to fast rope onto the deck of the ship from a helicopter armed with paint guns and pistols. An assault of this nature hinges on three factors; speed, aggression and surprise. As soon as the soldiers hit the deck they were set upon by activists wielding metal pipes, knives and other improvised weapons that rendered the paint guns useless. Some of the soldiers reportedly had their pistols taken from them. The crucial elements of speed and surprise were lost. Once the soldiers were surrounded, they couldn’t scramble back up the rope into the heli. They had no choice but to stand and defend themselves.
Had the IDF forgone the fast-roping and instead boarded exclusively with small crafts at various entry points on the ship’s hull, the individual raiding teams would have had the option to withdraw rather than open fire. It beggars belief that no one has lost their job over the unnecessary bloodletting on the Mavi Marmara. The whole operation was deplorable. The IDF commanders who planned it should be court-martialled and Israel’s Defence Minister, Ehud Barak should resign.
If history is anything to go by, the IDF will conduct an investigation into what happened and then clear itself of any wrong-doing. Anyone who attempts to counter the finding will no doubt be branded anti-Semitic and/or dismissed. But the IDF can’t stick its head in the sand forever. They need commanders with the knowledge and skills to execute delicate operations successfully.
To be fair, the IDF were not the only ones at fault here. The leaders of the Free Gaza flotilla should have ensured that none of the activists on board the ships would resort to violence. Had they responded non-violently to the IDF assault, it is entirely possible that no lives would have been lost. If there is another attempt to breach the Gaza blockage, I do hope the peace activists keep it peaceful. Because as this week’s tragic events have shown, violent resistance will be met by overwhelming force.