Gaza aid flotilla: Why Israel expects to lose the PR war

As a Gaza humanitarian flotilla carrying some 800 demonstrators and 10,000 tons of goods approaches its destination, Israeli officials are applying lessons learned from the previous eight Palestinian aid flotillas. But officials don't expect the Israeli message to win the media campaign.

Amir Cohen/Reuters
Israeli protesters hold banners on a yacht during a naval review as they call to stop the arrival of the Gaza aid flotilla at the portal city of Ashdod Friday.
Thibault Camus/AP
Pro-Palestinian activists demonstrate a day before the expected arrival of a Gaza aid flotilla, into the Gaza Strip, in Paris, Friday.

When a few dozen pro-Palestinian activists first tested Israel's naval blockade of the Gaza Strip – with a shipment of hearing aids and balloons in 2008 – Israel ducked the confrontation.

Now, with an estimated 800 demonstrators and 10,000 tons of goods expected to reach Gaza's waters Saturday – the ninth and by far the largest such attempt – Israel has long since changed its approach.

Israeli commandos plant to intercept the Gaza aid flotilla, albeit with orders to avoid unnecessary conflict with civilian passengers, which include some Israeli Arab parliamentarians and foreign lawmakers. A VIP room will be prepared for those distinguished protesters in the southern Israeli port of Ashdod, where the navy plans to send the diverted ships.

IN PICTURES: Palestinian smugglers on the Egypt Gaza border

Israeli spokesmen, meanwhile, are being deployed in a defensive publicity war. They argue that Gazans have ample food and supplies despite the blockade, and that complaints should be directed at Hamas, the Palestinian faction that rules the territory and is considered by the US, Israel, and Europe to be a terrorist group.

But Israeli officials admit that they're in a losing battle because they expect attention to focus on the humanitarian fallout of Israel's three-year blockade on the coastal territory rather than on Hamas.

"We know one thing for sure, in the media we are going to lose the war anyhow,'' says Shlomo Dror, a spokesman for Israel's Defense Ministry. "It doesn't matter what we do, if we let them into Gaza, they will speak against Israel. If we stop them it will also be a bad picture.''

'We learned our lesson' – Israeli spokesman

Two vessels, Liberty and Free Gaza, docked in Gaza in August 2008, when Israel's military was convinced they were not ferrying and weapons. It also assessed that intercepting the ships would be more trouble than it was worth.

In October and November that year, two other ships were given the same treatment in the hope that the attempts would eventually stop.

But when the blockade-busting attempts didn't let up, Israel ended its policy of benign neglect and began casting the protesters as allies of Hamas.

"We learned our lesson,'' says Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor, characterizing the activists' chief goal as being political more than humanitarian. "It was coordinated by Hamas.''

If the protesters really want to deliver humanitarian aid, they should do it through Israeli-controlled crossings, say officials.

Flotilla organizers say they have no connections to Hamas, and that there is no evidence that weapons have been delivered by humanitarian aid convoys in the past few years.

Fears of weapons smuggling

Israel's three-week offensive against Hamas in early 2009, designed to stop Gaza rocket attacks on southern Israel, both strengthened Israel's perception of the strip as a "hostile entity'' and placed the Jewish state under growing international scrutiny for its treatment of the civilian population of about 1.5 million.

The violence drew accusations of Israeli war crimes and stirred up criticism that the blockade of Gaza was a form of collective punishment and risked a humanitarian crisis. At the beginning of the war, one protest boat was turned away, and one shortly after was commandeered by the Israeli navy and forced to dock in Ashdod.

Mr. Dror says that the military concluded that if it continued to allow boats into Gaza, the aid shipments would eventually be used for weapons smuggling.

Israel hopes to deport activists by plane

The current blockade bust attempt by the Free Gaza Movement has further strained Israeli ties with Turkey, because the main passenger ship set sail from Istanbul.

Over the weekend, Israel is hoping for a swift interrogation of the flotilla participants at the port city of Ashdod and eventual deportation by air. The protesters could keep the story prominent in the international media if they fight deportation.

"It really does put the Israelis in a difficult position,'' says Marcus Sheff, the local director of the Israel Project, a pro-Israel advocacy group. "This is the last thing that the IDF needs to spend time doing, chasing after Hamas-organized boats sailing under a humanitarian flags. It focuses attention on the wrong thing, this word, 'blockade.' ''

IN PICTURES: Palestinian smugglers on the Egypt Gaza border


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