Regardless of the justifications provided and regardless of the provocations before and during the operation, the assault of Shayetet 13 on the convoy of ships trying to breach the Israeli blockade of Gaza shows beyond any doubt the fundamental hopelessness of the Israeli strategy. In dealing with people for whom the human life is not the highest value, Israel is condemned to either back down in a confrontation and face a reinvigorated, better-armed, and ever more aggressive Hamas, or use force and face an international opprobrium. Hamas will be at liberty to choose the place and timing of the confrontation and in doing so scuttle any number of peace initiatives, summit meetings, and good will gestures.
There is no question that the latest confrontation, which ended in tragedy, had been deliberately planned by Hamas and its supporters. The size of the flotilla, the presence of the leader of the Northern faction of the Islamic Movement in Israel, Sheikh Salah, who never misses an opportunity to expose his supporters to the Israeli armed might, and the battery of photographers and media who stood ready to record the bloodshed, all testify to a degree of cynicism in letting the ships go forward in the face of explicit Israeli warnings. Regardless of all that, the blame for the bloodshed will go to Israel — and rightly so, for anybody in his right mind could see that the booby trap would go off sooner rather than later.
Does that mean that Israel should give up and let Hamas do as they please? No Israeli government will do that given Hamas’s determination, in words and deeds, to destroy Israel. But Israelis should start using their brains, something they have an ample supply of, and realize that in trying to contain Hamas, unlike in some of their other fights, they do not necessarily have to go it alone. No one except the militant Islamists wants a stronger Hamas, not the US, not the EU, not Egypt, and certainly not the PLO.
The prevailing opinion of the international community, and of most Israelis I know, is that Hamas needs to be contained and not allowed to import missiles and weaponry for the terrorists, but that the ordinary Gazans should not be made to suffer for things which are beyond their power to control. Gaza should not be subject to a general blockade but to an enforceable arms embargo, including imports of dual-use material. Other things, not only humanitarian aid but all things that will enable Gazans to get on with their lives, should be allowed to go through, either through Rafah or through the maritime border. (Contrary to conventional wisdom, this writer does not believe Israel should be asked or obliged to trade with people who preach its destruction.)
There are proven and technically feasible ways to conduct such an embargo. Between 1993 and 1996 the NATO Operation Sharp Guard inspected 6,000 ships at sea and diverted 1,400 to port and checked them in order to enforce the UN-mandated arms embargo in former Yugoslavia. Surely a much smaller operation would be sufficient to ensure that non-lethal supplies would reach Gaza while missiles, weapons, and explosives stay out.
There are at least three serious obstacles to such a solution to the Gazan dilemma. One is the traditional Israeli unilateralism, which does not put much faith in multilateral recipes for Israeli problems. The glass of evidence on similar previous attempts is, depending on the observer, either half empty or half full. Since 1974, the presence of a UN observational force (the UNDOF) contributed to the Israeli-Syrian frontier being the quietest and most stable border between Israel and any of its neighbors. There is, however, a question as to whether it would be sufficient without the clear presence of an Israeli military deterrent.
The observational force established by Israel and Egypt, the MFO, has been an enormous help in keeping peace and building confidence on the Sinai border between Israel and Egypt. But because the MFO forces are co-owned by Egypt, Israel, and the US, rather than by the UN or another international organization, this is clearly an impractical solution for Israel and Hamas.
The UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL+) operation has worked better than the original UNIFIL and, so far, managed to keep the Hezbollah and Israel Defense Forces apart, but has hardly succeeded in preventing Hezbollah from rearming itself and becoming stronger still. As for the EU’s Border Assistance Mission (EUBAM), it had not been very effective to start with and has not been operational in Rafah for the last three years, but the EU believes it might yet come in handy one day. In sum, international attempts at peacemaking in the conflict have been hardly an ironclad guarantee of peace, but not a recipe for disaster either.
In the event of a well-functioning Gaza border international maritime operation, the military risk to Israel would be small, even compared to the risks stemming from the smuggling through tunnels on the land border between Egypt and Gaza. The relief, on the other hand, brought about by not having to police the maritime border, would be enormous, both in terms of the use of military capacities and in terms of public relations.
The second obstacle would be securing a UN Security Council mandate, without which any international peacekeeping operation would be a nonstarter. A number of countries would probably object to an asymmetrical embargo. Some would possibly try to argue the “right to resistance to the occupation” for Hamas just as they did for the Hezbollah. If, however, Israel handed over the control of the Gaza maritime border to an international organization, the “resistance” argument would lose much of its force. The Security Council resolution could also include demands made to the other side, such as directing Israel not to interfere with the operation and the deliveries of humanitarian aid and civilian supplies. All in all, it is conceivable that the five permanent members might see the wisdom of such a course of action.
The third obstacle would be finding someone to implement and enforce the resolution. NATO, an obvious candidate, with the tested know-how and capacity to conduct such an operation, has been loath, thus far, to go anywhere near the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, the recommendations of the group of “wise people” led by Madeleine Albright on NATO’s New Strategic Concept mention for the first time NATO’s readiness to help implement peace agreements in the conflict.
Admittedly, an international operation to prevent arms smuggling to Gaza and to ensure deliveries of civilian supplies to the Strip would not bring peace to the Middle East. But it might be a small step.