Israel’s interception of the flotilla attempting to break the Gaza blockade has been the focus of massive international attention — and condemnation. In the melee of interviews, editorials and images, the basic facts of the incident have often been obscured. Segments of the American Jewish community were rendered confused and bereft of answers. Why, many asked, did Israel have to send commandos to assault a peaceful flotilla? Why were nine passengers killed and many wounded? And why must Israel blockade Gaza, a densely populated area notorious for its poverty and devastation?
For the record, Israel regrets any loss of life or casualties, including the Israeli soldiers who were beaten, stabbed, shot and pitched over the railing to a deck many feet below. Israel, moreover, has no desire to worsen the situation of Gaza’s citizens, whom it hopes will join the peace process currently under way with the West Bank Palestinian Authority.
In fact, Israel facilitates more than 100 truckloads of food and medicine into Gaza each day, guaranteeing that there are no shortages of either. Yet Israel has no choice but to protect its own citizens — and to preserve the peace process — from the murderous Hamas regime.
Hamas, it must be recalled, is a genocidal organization calling not only for the destruction of Israel but the annihilation of the Jewish people worldwide. Its gunmen overthrew the legitimate Palestinian government in the Gaza Strip, killing hundreds, and in recent years fired more than 10,000 rockets and mortar shells at civilian targets in Israel. In addition to the 1,000 Israelis killed by suicide bombers, most of them dispatched by Hamas, nearly a million Israelis were threatened with Hamas missile fire.
Hamas smuggles rockets and other munitions through crudely dug tunnels under the Egyptian border. The process is laborious and the smugglers can often be frustrated. If Hamas had access to the sea, freighters laden with Syrian and Iranian arms would vastly expand its arsenal.
Hamas, in fact, has tried to receive arm shipments from the sea, only to be thwarted by Israel. If Hamas had succeeded, virtually every city in Israel would fall within range. Egypt, too, fears Hamas as a wing of the militant Muslim Brotherhood and understands that the blockade is a matter of paramount national security. The Palestinian Authority also realizes that a resurgent Hamas poses a mortal threat to its survival and a certain end to the peace process.
We also cannot forget Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier kidnapped by Hamas and held for four years without a single visit from the Red Cross or any human rights group. The blockade also is a necessary means of maintaining pressure on Hamas to release Shalit and reunite him with his family.
Prior to the latest incident, Israel intercepted nine flotillas, all of which submitted without violence. Even in this most recent case, five of the six ships were peacefully escorted into an Israeli port, where cargoes were vetted for materials that could possibly strengthen Hamas. This includes cement, which the organization uses to build not schools but military installations. The remainder was then transferred to the people of Gaza.
The fact that Hamas refused to accept this consignment demonstrated again that the issue is not humanitarian aid and the welfare of Gaza’s inhabitants. Rather, Hamas wants to break the blockade in order to isolate and delegitimize Israel, and to render the Jewish state vulnerable to a daily hail of rockets.
The only ship to react violently to Israel’s interception was the Turkish Mavi Marmara, a vessel under the control of a radical Islamic charity which, according to the CIA and other international intelligence agencies, is linked to Islamic Jihad and al-Qaida. In addition to its 600 passengers, the Marmara took on some 70 highly paid mercenaries who boarded the ship at a different port and without any security check. They were armed with dozens of iron bars, wooden clubs, knives and possibly guns. Once on deck, they chanted an Islamic oath meaning “Death to the Jews,” and as the Israeli Navy boats approached, they shouted, “Jews go back to Auschwitz!”
Due to the large size of the Marmara, Israel could not stop the vessel by technical means, such as fouling its propeller. There was no option but to helicopter commandos onto the deck. Though they carried pistols for their personal defense, their main weapons were non-lethal paintball guns. But these proved ineffective in stopping the mercenaries, who also were equipped with bullet-proof vests and gas masks. Our soldiers were quickly overwhelmed and several were severely injured. Some sustained gunshot wounds, either from the sidearms wrested from them or from other guns that may have later been thrown overboard.
It is crucial to note that solely on the Marmara did Israel encounter any violence and only from the hired thugs. Even then, Israel offered to convey the Marmara’s cargo to Gaza. A subsequent ship from Ireland was boarded and escorted to southern Israel without injury or incident and its cargo similarly transferred.
Since the Marmara episode, Israel has come under immense pressure to submit to an international inquiry. Such a panel, drawn from countries hostile to Israel, could hardly be expected to be balanced. They also would violate Israel’s right — indeed its duty — as a democratic state to investigate itself.
Still, the Israeli government is considering some degree of international consultation under an authoritative Israeli inquest. We are also open to ideas from the United States and other friendly nations on ways to address the needs of Gaza’s population with Israel’s vital security interests.
We in Israel understand the difficulty of explaining our need to monitor the sea lanes to Gaza and to maintain pressure on Hamas to free Gilad Shalit. It is, to say the least, unpleasant to confront charges of piracy and violations of international law. We know that confronting Hamas is essential for our safety and for the success of negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. Because of our steadfastness, Hamas’ popularity in Gaza has plummeted in recent months. That is a trend that, in spite of its costs, must be embraced by all who care about Israel and peace.
Michael B. Oren is Israel’s ambassador to the United States. This article was originally written for the Jewish Exponent of Philadelphia.