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Israel's Deadly Attack on Peace Activists Provokes International Outrage, Diplomatic Crisis

When Israeli commandos dropped from the sky, swarmed the vessels and massacred international activists, Israel lost a massive battle in its global public relations war.

Days of tension between Israel’s hawkish government and the organizers of the Freedom Flotilla carrying 700 peace activists and 10,000 tons of desperately needed supplies to Gaza culminated in grisly carnage after a deadly pre-dawn attack by Israeli commandos. The operation left between nine and 19 international activists dead and dozens more injured and bleeding on the decks of the civilian vessels.

As Ha’aretz columnist Yossi Melman  wrote, “No matter how one looks at the conduct of the Israeli government and the IDF, it is hard to understand how stupid and tragic it was. Time and again, Israel tries to prove that what can't be solved by force can be solved by more force.”

The international backlash against the Netanyahu government has been swift, and it will likely prove deep. Reuters  reported that the attacks had “set off a diplomatic furor, drawing criticism from friends and foes alike.” Moscow condemned the attack as a “gross violation” of international law. The Turkish government called it an act of “state terrorism,” and recalled its ambassador to Israel. It joined Greece in canceling joint military exercises planned with the Israeli Defense Forces.

Israeli hawks and their defenders abroad frequently express deep concern about what they view as a campaign of “delegitimization” of the Jewish state. They see the international boycott movement, student divestment campaigns and criticism from human rights groups as grave threats to Israel’s continued support within the international community, especially from the United States and Europe. They fear the potential ramifications of global public opinion turning wholly and irreversibly against them; they see the potential for that scenario to re-define Israel’s most important strategic relationships.

When the UN released the Goldstone Report, which called out both Israel and Hamas for war crimes committed during the 2008 Gaza conflict, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu  told reporters, "the delegitimization must be delegitimized." So it’s no small irony that the habitual use of lethal force by “Bibi’s” right-wing government -- against not only armed Palestinian resistance groups but also routinely against Palestinian and foreign civilians and peaceful protesters -- has done much more to turn Israel into a ”pariah state” than its critics could have ever hoped to do.

As Steven Walt of Harvard  put it:

How could they possibly believe that a deadly assault against a humanitarian mission in international waters would play to their advantage? Israel's government and its hard-line supporters frequently complain about alleged efforts to "delegitimize" the country, but actions like this are the real reason Israel's standing around the world has plummeted to such low levels.

The attack on the Freedom Flotilla might ultimately prove as devastating to Israel’s blanket claim that it acts proportionally and in self-defense as it was brutal for the activists aboard the ships. The troops didn’t have to board the vessels to stop them. In 1988, when the PLO announced that a ship called  The Return  would embark for Israel filled with Palestinian refugees, Mossad agents sabotaged the craft before anyone boarded, causing extensive damage but no loss of life. As a last resort, military commanders could have used directed fire on the motors of the ships, halting their voyage without bloodshed. (To be clear, the blockade is both ineffective and an example of collective punishment -- I’m not endorsing these actions. The point is that the operation was a tragic example of thoughtless overkill.)

Although it went largely unnoticed in the U.S. media before this weekend’s deadly raid, the approach of the flotilla was a major news story elsewhere in the world. Activists and aid workers had won a victory against the Israeli blockade the instant they set off to deliver their relief supplies. The question was only how significant it would be.

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