Shortly before dawn Monday morning, journalist Paul McGeough, aboard a flotilla of ships carrying aid intended for the Israeli-blockaded Gaza Strip, noticed his Internet satellite link had been jammed. He was able, however, to reach the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper by satellite phone and describe what he saw. “We see two Zodiacs moving in,” he said. “The searchlight on the Turkish passenger ferry scans the water. Now there are five of them astern of us. There are white wakes on black water. Searchlights from one of the cargo ships and from the Turkish ferry are picking up the Zodiacs now—radars spinning on them, armed troops.”
McGeough’s call ended here, and what happened next is disputed. Organizers of the flotilla say Israeli commandos came aboard shooting. Israel says its soldiers were attacked as they rappelled from helicopters onto the deck of the Turkish-flagged lead vessel, the Mavi Marmara. Video footage released by Israel supports this claim. It shows Israeli commandos set upon and beaten by activists wielding rods and chairs. One soldier is thrown off the upper deck. Another yells: “Look out! He’s got a knife. Behind you!” A second video shows activists throwing what appear to be Molotov cocktails.
Israel has not released footage of its soldiers opening fire, although this presumably exists. That it has not been shown raises questions about exactly what happened next. At least nine activists were killed, and more injured. Israeli soldiers were also wounded in the melee, including two seriously.
The confrontation is a disaster for Israel on several fronts. Tactically, Israel blundered into a trap. Israel claims the violence was pre-meditated, and given the weapons that were found on board, this seems a fair assessment. But Israel should have known this in advance. Bulent Yildirim, head of the Turkish IHH Islamist charity that chartered the Mavi Marmara, told Turkish television crews on the ship, “We will definitely resist, and we will not allow the Israelis to enter here.” Al-Jazeera reported activists singing songs recalling an ancient Muslim military victory over Jews in the Arabian Peninsula and warning that the “army of Muhammad” will return. Plus, the aid convoy was a well-publicized affair. It’s reasonable to expect that Israeli intelligence knew, or should have known, who was on the ship and how they would react to Israel’s attempt to board it.
Why, then, did Israel—a country with more experience dealing with rioters than most others—deploy an elite unit of naval commandos well trained in the use of lethal force but not in crowd control? Why were so few of them landed at once that they were initially overwhelmed and at risk of being lynched? Why, given the likelihood of a violent confrontation, was the ship boarded at all? It could have been disabled and left adrift with no loss of life. Even letting the aid convoy through to Gaza would have been less risky. No one seriously believed it carried rockets.
These are the questions stoking anger in Israel today. But it’s too late to answer them. The damage has been done. Israel is more isolated globally than it has been in years. And its relationship with Turkey—its most important ally next to the United States—is broken, possibly beyond repair.
Ties between the two nations were strong for decades, nurtured by their shared status as democracies, and as minorities in a region dominated by Arabs. These bonds frayed following Israel’s 2008-2009 war in Gaza, and Turkey’s moves to strengthen relations with Israel’s enemies, Syria and Iran. But the alliance’s foundation remained. “They see eye to eye on many things in a region that is dominated by autocracy and kingdoms,” Turkish journalist Barcin Yinanc told Maclean’s in April.
This foundation may now be shattered. Israel attacked a Turkish boat in international waters. Among the dead are Turkish civilians. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the assault “state terror” and a “bloody massacre.” He’s recalled the Turkish ambassador to Israel and cancelled upcoming joint military exercises.
Meanwhile Hamas, the Islamist group that runs Gaza and is the ostensible target of the Israeli blockade, is strengthened. It can portray its supporters as martyrs, while its secular rivals in Fatah, who govern the West Bank, pursue negotiations with a newly demonized Israel. Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas leader in Gaza, predicted before all this took place that even if the aid convoy never reached Gaza, Gaza would have won. To the extent that Gaza is Hamas, he was right.