Iran is trying to smuggle rockets and other arms into the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, prompting a sea blockade that Israel enforced by boarding a ship Monday and killing pro-Palestinian activists who ambushed and tried to kill the commandos.
Hamas launched a rocket barrage on neighboring Israel in 2008-09. Israel responded with a high-tech air war that destroyed a number of Hamas military and political facilities, while targeting the militant group’s leaders. The result was an uneasy ceasefire sporadically broken by an isolated rocket attack.
Israel believes Hamas, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization which took power in Gaza in 2007, is gearing up for another rocket offensive and is receiving arms from Tehran as it fights a proxy war against Israel.
To prevent a massive rearming, Israel stops ships headed to Gaza and redirects them to the port of Ashdod. There, non-military supplies can be trucked into the strip.
On Monday, five ships in what was supposed to be a humanitarian flotilla complied with Israel Defense Force warnings. But a sixth, a Turkish-flagged ferry carrying 700 activists, did not. When Israeli commandos boarded the vessel, roped from a helicopter, they were attacked by the activists. The special forces fired in self-defense and killed 10.
"This incident was the result of an intentional provocation of forces which support Iran and its terrorist enclave, Hamas, in the Gaza Strip," said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. "This enclave, Hamas, has fired thousands of missiles at the State of Israel, and it is amassing thousands more."
He added, "This is a clear case of self-defense. Israel cannot allow the free flow of weapons and rockets and missiles to the terrorist base of Hamas in Gaza. It’s a terrorist base supported by Iran. It’s already fired thousands of rockets at Israeli cities. It seeks to smuggle in thousands of more, and this is why Israel must inspect the goods that come into Gaza."
An Israel Defense Forces spokesman said the attack onboard the Mavi Marmara was unprovoked.
"The demonstrators onboard attacked the IDF naval personnel with live fire and light weaponry including knives and clubs," the spokesman said. "Additionally one of the weapons used was grabbed from an IDF soldier. The demonstrators had clearly prepared their weapons in advance for this specific purpose. As a result of this life-threatening and violent activity, naval forces employed riot dispersal means, including live fire."
The spokesman said Israel had been tracking the flotilla and had warned it several times not to try to breach the naval blockade, but instead to proceed to Ashdod.
"The interception of the flotilla followed numerous warnings given to the organizers of the flotilla before leaving their ports as well as while sailing towards the Gaza Strip," the IDF said. "In these warnings, it was made clear to the organizers that they could dock in the Ashdod sea port and unload the equipment they are carrying in order to deliver it to the Gaza Strip in an orderly manner, following the appropriate security checks."
At the United Nations Monday, the 15-member Security Council approved a statement—notably not a resolution that can contain sanctions—calling for an independent investigation into the incident.
Before the vote, Gabriella Shalev, Israel’s U.N. ambassador, ridiculed the idea the six-ship flotilla was on a humanitarian mission. If it was, she said, the ships would have done what U.N., Red Cross and other organizations do: dock at Ashdod and ship by land.
"What kind of peace activists use knives, clubs and other weapons to attack soldiers who board a ship in accordance with international law?" Shalev said. "What kind of humanitarian activists, some with known terrorist history, embrace Hamas, a terrorist organization that openly shuns a two-state solution and calls for Israel destruction, defying conditions set by the international community and the Quartet. The answer is clear: they are not peace activists; they are not messengers of good will. They cynically use a humanitarian platform to send a message of hate and to implement violence."
Iran is sponsoring two groups at war with Israel—Hamas on the southern boarder, and Lebanese Hezbollah on the North. Iran supplies both with rockets and other arms. Some are smuggled through Syria. At other times, Iran tries to circumvent the naval embargo.
Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wasted no time in trying to capitalize on an incident he may well have orchestrated.
"I ask the Security Council to keep the crimes of the Zionists on its agenda and to cut off their hands from committing crimes with a strong resolution," Ahmadinejad said during a provincial visit to town of Ilam, according to news reports.
Ahmadinejad is pursuing development of nuclear weapons and has vowed repeatedly to destroy Israel.
Netanyahu on Monday canceled a planned trip to meet with President Obama in Washington. Obama snubbed the prime minister during his last visit in March, keeping him waiting for a meeting and not allowing a photo op. At one point, Obama left the meeting and told Netanyahu he could talk to White House aides.
Militant Islamists, like Hamas and Ahmadinejad, watch for any sign of a wedge between Washington and Jerusalem.
Meanwhile, the Israeli free press is criticizing the IDF for poor planning, saying it sent too few commandoes onboard to deal with a murderous mob. The IDF released a video to buttress its reports that its men were attacked.
Said a news analysis in the Jerusalem Post, "The IDF’s intelligence was clearly deeply flawed. As the footage showed, the outnumbered, under-equipped and incorrectly prepared commandos found themselves not grappling with unruly peace activists or demonstrators, to whom they had been ordered to show ‘restraint,’ but being viciously attacked before they had barely set foot on deck. The clips showed clusters of people swarming around each of the commandos, and beating them over and over with clubs and bars in scenes sickeningly reminiscent of the lynching of IDF reservists in the Ramallah police station 10 years ago."
Mark Regev, a Netanyahu spokesman, told reporters Tuesday that Hamas gets rockets from Iran and Syria with a range capable of reaching Tel Aviv.
"So for Israel I don’t think I’m overstating the case when I say the naval blockade is a matter of life and death," he said. "This for us is a crucial issue. We know the nature of the Hamas regime in Gaza. We know who its allies are internationally. We know what they’re trying to do. And it’s incumbent upon us to make every step to make sure that that sort of weaponry does not arrive in the Gaza Strip."
He criticized the UN’s decision to launch an investigation.
"These calls for an international UN investigation are simply holding Israel to a standard that no one else is held to," he said. "How many NATO forces go into action in different parts around the world where innocent civilians are caught up in crossfire or something like that? Is there an international investigation?"