Whatever Happened, Happened

My new piece at Fortnight, partially inspired by the events of the MV Mavi Mamara Gaza flotilla raid, is all about the facts and just the facts, ma’m. More specifically, it’s about how no one agrees on what should be indisputable, universally accepted truths. Reality itself is now up for debate.

On May 31, 2010, Israeli naval commandos rappelled onto a series of boats in an enemy flotilla that was attempting to run a blockade off of Gaza. Provoked, Jerusalem had no choice but to respond to and interdict the flotilla. Met with hostile resistance as they boarded the boats—rappelling down from helicopters—the Israeli troops responded in kind, and neutralized the terrorist threat.

Or: On May 31, 2010, a band of Jewish thugs murdered several innocent protesters who were on a mission of mercy to the blighted Gaza strip. In an attempt to persuade the world of the injustices and cruelty being perpetrated on the innocent peoples of Palestine, Israel proved that it could not tolerate even peaceful protest, and violated its own principles of free speech by slaughtering those attempting to exercise their rights.

But, how about we phrase it this way: On May 31, 2010, a bunch of people were killed and injured on boats in the Mediterranean. Two parties, clearly at odds with each other, both overreacted and some people died because of it.

Nobody wins.

Sadly, time will heal little, and temporal distance from the Gaza flotilla incident will do even less to clarify what happened and why. Who is correct in their interpretation of history?


Today, there is no single agreed-upon history from which to gauge correct accounts of political events. Facts are debatable. Ignorance and willful denial can coexist in a single narrative. Conspiracy theories and epistemic alternate realities (or, to use the recent turn of phrase, a certain “epistemic closure”) run rampant and unchecked. Cultural differences in conceptualizing time even play a part. And this all assumes there is an active desire and search for truth; many news consumers now cope with a world in which shoving their collective past down the “memory hole” is de rigueur.

Read the rest over at Fortnight.

Death from Above

At a recent conference in Beit Hatotchan on urban warfare, Major General Sami Turgeman of the Israeli 36th Armored Division announced findings from Operation Cast Lead in 2008.-9 One of them struck me as rather surprising, considering other counterinsurgency/military operations – that “the Air Force is more accurate in urban warfare.”

Now granted, that is in comparison with Israeli armor, but nevertheless it rings a bit hollow. Even with air strikes in at historical highs in October, it was deemed necessary to deploy tanks to southwest Afghanistan. Tankers were naturally thrilled, and one wrote of the new firepower available to bring to bear:

Currently, most American military vehicles are equipped with remote optics systems,  which are useful for urban fire fights at short ranges but do not offer the depth necessary to fight effectively in southwestern Afghanistan. However, tanks offer optics systems that dwarf the traditional capabilities of an infantry carrier…and, oh yeah, these days each tank can acquire targets clearly in excess of four times as far.

So perhaps it’s not a zero-sum case of tanks or planes, but rather using both in areas of relative superiority. Still, returning to the IAF, Gen. Turgeman “explained that the solution for urban warfare is stronger cooperation between air and ground forces.”

There are an unbelievable number of problems facing aviation as used in urban warfare, be it counterinsurgency or conventional operations. Israel has begun to slightly shift the focus of even their conventional ops to a more population-centric (read: media-friendly) approach, but more air power is absolutely not the way to go about it. Even discriminate aerial bombing and air strikes pose a great risk of collateral damage, and most definitely does not look good on camera.

This is, of course, what I wrote my dissertation about, albeit in the case of Aden (I’ve been holding off on reprinting the whole article here while I try to get it published). But here’s a relevant passage:

While the RAF enjoyed great success up-country in the Aden Protectorate, both independent and in support of ground operations by both the FRA and the British Army, that success was useless when compared with the insurgency’s shift to urban centers, and when the political situation of Aden is taken into account. Both in terms of the use of airpower and the overall relevance of it, politics are hugely important. The potential fallout from misapplied air strikes and civilian casualties was and remains immense, as Britain learned to its detriment. Furthermore, even if airpower is used responsibly and with minimal collateral damage – such as during the Harib raid – interpretation is everything, and when Yemen claimed 25 civilian casualties resulting from the raid, Britain could neither prove nor disprove the figure, despite the near-certainty of its untruth. Obviously, the use of airpower both before and during the insurgency had to rely on precise targeting and weapons systems to avoid further alienating the local population and inflaming world opinion, but regardless of the truth, it was all too often that Britain found its reputation in tatters due to an air attack of any kind.

So while the Israeli Air Force may indeed have improved its relative accuracy, it ultimately doesn’t matter. Air power, however skillfully employed, does not win hearts and minds.

Wedding Crashers

What I at first thought was just a single issue as a gift turned out to be a full subscription to The Counter Terrorist. I’ve had one issue sitting around staring at me for months, and finally got around to cracking it. The first article offers some interesting lessons beyond those the author seems to have taken away. While the actual operation is pretty unequivocally badass, there seem to be a couple unnecessary elements towards the end.

Aaron Cohen on the cover of his book.

In “Undercover in Nablus” (an excerpt from his recent book Brotherhood of Warriors: Behind Enemy Lines with a Commando in One of the World’s Most Elite Counterterrorism Units), Aaron Cohen, an operative in an Israeli Duvdevan unit, describes an attempt to capture ‘Abu Jihad’, the “Hamas mastermind behind the Dizengoff Mall bombing.” The plan is simple yet intricate. Two operators posing as friends of the groom will snatch Abu Jihad from a wedding reception in Mishraim once the entire unit has eyes-on the target. But everyone prepares for the worst-case scenario, of course:

Rooftop snipers would surround the target location. We would have a dozen undercover cars with heavy weaponry on the perimeter, circling the streets of Nablus.

Cohen was posing as a sweet-corn vendor, with a heavily modified cart:

The cart also had a live-action camera feed… If a firefight were to break out, I had my SIG tucked at the small of my back and the bottom of the cart was custom lined with Kevlar. Flipped on its side, the cart would provide cover as a bulletproof barricade.

The actual snatch goes pretty well. Cohen gets eyes-on the target, followed by confirmation from the rest of the unit. Within six seconds the two operators inside the wedding reception grab Abu Jihad without drawing their weapons and hustle him into a waiting fake taxi.

Cohen and the others begin to just drift away, but it’s what happens right after the snatch that troubles me.

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Trouble in Paradise

And by paradise, I of course mean NATO. Turkey has called an emergency meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in order to discuss the recent Israeli attack on the Gaza-bound flotilla. It’s a fairly routine response to such an event, except for what it might actually mean for the alliance and for Israel. As a refresher, Article Five of the treaty:

The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence recognised by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.

Now, consider Article Six – and keep in mind that one of the flotilla ships, the MV Mavi Mamara, is Turkish-flagged:

For the purpose of Article 5, an armed attack on one or more of the Parties is deemed to include an armed attack:


  • on the forces, vessels, or aircraft of any of the Parties, when in or over these territories or any other area in Europe in which occupation forces of any of the Parties were stationed on the date when the Treaty entered into force or the Mediterranean Sea or the North Atlantic area north of the Tropic of Cancer [emphasis mine].

There is a whole world of possibility here, virtually none of it good. Whatever the justification is for Israel’s actions, it’s clear there are going to be consequences, the severity of which have yet to be determined.

Unfortunately, I cannot recall the exact source I saw this in (if you know it, remind me), but if there was an “international aid flotilla” steaming for Turkey with its supplies bound for the Kurds, would Ankara act much differently? It’s a good point – but the current membership of NATO renders such a hypothetical mostly irrelevant.

This could very well mean the beginning of the end for the Atlantic alliance. It will at least pose a serious dilemma in terms of composition. After all, who right now is more aligned with policy and public sentiment in Europe: Turkey, or America?

Different Strokes for Different Folks, or, Whatever Floats Your Boat

Regardless of what the true story is with the Israeli interception of a Gaza-bound flotilla, all sides and interested parties will take away from it what they want to. Much like the al-Durrah incident in 2000, the flotilla intercept will be used a prism through which any side can view the conflict as a whole.

For instance, the earliest reports that were unable to describe anything more detailed than Israelis boarding the flotilla and killing ten implied a massacre for which Jerusalem was directly responsible. But already video has come out with the true nature of the “peace activists” revealed (via Information Dissemination):

Of course, this in no exonerates Israel of responsibility for the raid in the first pace. If nothing else, this was a public relations catastrophe that could easily spark a third intifada. And it’s hard to see how the result couldn’t be predicted on either side. Galrahn calls it a given:

It is hard for Americans to draw any analogies, because we don’t have a relationship like the one between Israel and Palestine.

But if 1000 people from Mexico, whom our government presumed was mostly made up of drug cartel supporters, tried to sail into San Diego with the expectation of running the blockade of the Coast Guard and creating a political demonstration through confrontation – I assure you the odds of people getting killed would be pretty high.

Just like they were in this situation.

Either the flotilla itself was an intentional provocation – or not. It really does push the limits of the imagination to assert that no one had any idea a flotilla like that would possibly provoke Israel. But as Abu Muqawama explains, it’s Israel that should have had an even clearer idea of the possible consequences:

But for the sake of argument, and putting ourselves in the shoes of an Israeli naval commander, let’s assume the most malevolent of motivations for the people participating in the peace flotilla. If I am in charge of doing that for the Israeli Navy, I am going to assume these people are smart and are deliberately trying to provoke a crazy response from my sailors and soldiers that will produce ready-for-television images that both isolate Israel within the international community and further raise the ire of the Arabic-speaking and Islamic worlds. I mean, that is my base assumption for what this group is trying to do. So naturally, the last thing I would want my forces to do would be to overreact, right? [emphasis in original]

One need not assign blame to anyone in order to see this as the colossal fuckup that it is. As usual, absolutely no one wins this game.

Down That Road Again

If you thought the LSE (and Britain in general) was bad at curbing extremism and hatred (and I do, see here, here, and here), then Oxford University will knock your socks off. From The JC:

Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister was met by a protester screaming “slaughter the Jews” as he spoke at the Oxford Union.

Antisemitic and anti-Israel abuse was shouted throughout Danny Ayalon’s speech on Monday evening, with students causing numerous disruptions to the event.

During the hour-long session one student ran towards Mr Ayalon shouting the Arabic phrase “Itbah Al-Yahud” [Slaughter the Jews].

As many as 10 others, carrying Palestinian flags, made attempts to attack Mr Ayalon but were intercepted and removed by security.

Unlike when Ayalon spoke at LSE, the administration in this situation sprang to his defense as a speaker and contributor of ideas. No faculty petitions up north (to my knowledge). In their statement (PDF), the Oxford Union said:

Whilst the vast majority of the audience behaved in an orderly and responsible fashion, some members continually interrupted the speech, and one individual in particular appears to have made a directly anti-Semitic remark. These individuals exceeded the principles of free speech that the Society upholds…

…This morning, the Union’s President launched an investigation aimed at identifying the
Members who disrupted the event. The Union will be taking disciplinary action against these
Members, in accordance with the Society’s rules…

…The Oxford Union believes in the rights of free speech and protecting our invited speakers’ ability to express themselves in an orderly and disciplined environment…

…Last night was unprecedented. A disorderly minority disrupted and prevented the speaker from holding the floor where he had been invited to speak.

It’s nice to see an apology, or even an admission that something at the event had not gone as planned. Certainly no such statement was issued at LSE. Because what’s the point of debating when you can just wave your flags, shout some cheers, and win the argument? You don’t even need to make a point.

It’s a perfect storm of the western recoil, its love for countries-in-waiting (see: the Free Tibet movement), and willingness to attend a rally. I really do feel for Ayalon and any other Israeli officials who seek to engage in a back-and-forth with the community in Britain. It won’t do a thing: the minds of this country are made up.

An Island Apart

Muslims protest Geert Wilders' appearance before Parliament, October 2009.

Something’s gotta give. No, seriously. Finally backlash seems to be mounting against the British government’s tolerance for extremist organizations (provided, of course, that they are Muslim). The trend is especially present in universities, however, where the constant mantra of “free speech” has somehow blocked out all voices, such as the BNP and others, with the sole exception of any Islamic or Muslim society.

The Christmas Pants Bomber has prompted a new bout of soul-searching as the west attempts to decipher the source of radicalization. Nigerian Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka perhaps made the loudest and boldest claim, laying blame on Britain (“a cesspit“) – and not Nigeria – for the pants bomber’s radicalization.

Continue reading

Fisk Hates Israel

Robert Fisk, writing in the Independent, has portrayed Israel as a self-hating, self-destructive state whose very existence is unjust. I can’t quote at length, as the piece is too sarcastic in decrying the “Israel under siege” mentality and as we all know, sarcasm doesn’t translate well on the internet.

Britain – this came yesterday from Israel’s ambassador in London, no less – is “a battlefield” in which Israel’s enemies wish to “de-legitimise” the 62-year-old Jewish state…

…Israel the underdog. Israel the victim. Israel whose state-of-the-art, more-moral-than-any-other army was now in danger of seeing its generals arraigned on war crimes charges if they set foot in Europe…

…One of the most distressing moments at Herzliya came when Lorna Fitzsimons, former Labour MP and now head of Bicom, a British-based pro-Israeli think-tank, pointed out that “public opinion does not influence foreign policy in Britain. Foreign policy is an elite issue.” Deal with the elite, and the proles will follow – that was the implication. “Our enemies are going out to international courts where we are not supreme,” she said…

…Alas, no Kahan Commissions for Israel today. No judgment for Gaza. Just a slap on the wrist for a couple of officers who used phosphorus and a criminal charge against a soldier for stealing credit cards…

…All of which suggests that the real earthquake beneath Israel, the real danger to its image and standing and legitimacy, is a nation called Israel.

Brilliant, Fisk. First you imply that any Israeli fear of a growing sense of illegitimacy is pure hogwash, and then conclude your idiotic ramblings with a suggestion that the nation probably doesn’t deserve to exist, thereby proving your earlier point wrong (and reminding us again and again that anti-Israeli – and not just anti-Zionist sentiment is alive and well). Well-played.