As Next Flotilla Nears Launch...

Israel ponders strategy for Round II.

On December 15, 2010 a ceremony was held in Gaza to commemorate the reconstruction of a building in Jabaliya that was destroyed during Operation Cast Lead—and thus the rebuilding was considered a symbolic victory of sorts for Hamas.

The keynote speech at the ceremony was delivered by Muhammad Kaya, a Turkish national. He brought the house down with the following remarks:

“We represent Turkey, and our interest and goal is not to feed the Palestinian people and bring them food, but to help them stand on their feet in face of the occupation’s oppression and support them in confronting their enemies. We are certain that if the force on this land submitted to imperialist dictates money would flow in from every side, but this force refused and stood firm in the face of challenges… the day will come when Palestinians will build their houses in Jaffa, Tel Aviv and Haifa.”

This was par for the course for speeches given under Hamas auspices, but the speaker in this case, Kaya, was actually a representative from the Turkish Foundation for Human Rights, Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief—better known as the IHH, the terrorist organization behind last year’s deadly “flotilla” that attempted to break the naval blockade of Gaza to help Hamas. The incident turned violent when the Israel Defense Forces boarded one ship, the Mavi Marmara, and were attacked by armed men.

And the IHH is behind a new flotilla, preparing to set sail for Gaza in May, in time for the one-year anniversary of the first.

“The Leader of the IHH is Bulent Yildirim, who said they are getting the flotilla ready and that there will be a ship from every country in Europe,” reported Voice of America. “Yildirim said the ‘Mavi Marmara’ from Turkey will be part of it, and until the blockade is lifted on Gaza, the intifada will continue by land, by sea and by air.”

The question, then, is this: If the IHH and its partners will behave exactly the same as last year, how will Israel respond?

“The Israelis will use different methods to bring the flotilla under control, or at least at minimum to prevent it from making it all the way to Gaza,” said James Colbert, policy director at the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, in Washington, D.C.

Just what those methods are has not been revealed, but options for disarming the ships at sea have been discussed. Last time, naval commandos dropped down to the Mavi Marmara armed with paintball guns, unprepared for the violence reception they received. In hindsight, Colbert said, this turned out to be both “unwise” and “ineffective.”

The passengers they encountered were “violent protesters, some of them known to affiliate with terrorist organizations, who met them with iron clubs, knives, sling shots and firebombs. So they are not going to put their troops at risk in the same way.”

One option, Colbert said, is to disable the power on the ships, but if inclement weather approaches the ships would be in immediate danger without engine power. Others have floated the idea of an Israeli “counter-flotilla,” which would be peaceful and display banners calling attention to the Gaza flotilla’s illegality. That would have the effect of getting the Israeli point of view in front of the news cameras covering the event. Colbert noted the inherent hazards in such an act: the Gaza flotilla boats could attempt to ram the Israeli boats, and running boats so close together carries the risk of a crash.

Israel will also have to work out the logistics of a seeming contradiction: allowing legitimate humanitarian supplies through while taking a tough line toward those who, like last year’s flotilla, attempt to bring weapons to Hamas or resist Israel’s efforts to bring the ships into Ashdod for inspection. “I don’t think it will deter the people who want to cause Israel harm, and in fact are looking for this, they’re looking for a violent confrontation,” Colbert said.

If a ship is found to have weapons aboard, Israeli forces may disable the ship’s engine and encourage its backers to have the ship towed not to Israel, but to its point of origin—Turkey or Cyprus.

Members of the Fatah Central Committee claim they will participate as well. Senior Fatah member Nabil Shaath told a Palestinian radio service that although Fatah doesn’t control the Gaza Strip (Hamas does) nor do they have any authority over the Mediterranean from the Gaza coastline to international waters (Israel does), “we don’t need authorization to reach our homeland—not from Hamas and not from Israeli security forces.”

Through the attempt to smuggle weapons to Hamas in last year’s flotilla exercise and public remarks such as Kaya’s, the IHH has made its intentions clear, presenting Israel with an obvious security challenge as the flotilla date nears.

“We hope to see some innovative tactics [from Israel],” Colbert said.

Seth Mandel is a writer specializing in Middle Eastern politics and a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Horowitz Freedom Center.