Another day, another public black eye for Israel of its own making that could have easily been avoided. Why am I not surprised? First, it turns out that 40% of the people barred entry to Israel yesterday as part of Jerusalem’s overreaction to the flytilla (more on that in a moment) were blacklisted despite a lack of any evidence connecting them to the planned pro-Palestinian protests. Israel’s use of a sledgehammer rather than a scalpel apparently ensnared even foreign diplomats, including a French couple slated to begin working at France’s Jerusalem consulate this summer and an Italian Communications Ministry employee. No doubt this will do wonders for Israel’s gold-plated image in Europe and convince doubters of its liberal character. One also did not need to be a foreigner to be kept out of Ben Gurion Airport, as several Israeli citizens were not allowed into the country either.
Far more damaging is the video of an IDF lieutenant-colonel beating an unarmed bike rider with his M-16. The beating of protestors, whose bike ride through the Jordan Valley must have been deemed an existential threat to Israel in order to prompt such a response, has been swiftly condemned by Netanyahu and IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, but the damage is already done and will reverberate on Youtube forever. All in all, a great weekend for Israel and its supporters. Maybe next someone can leak the fact that Ehud Barak secretly hates kittens.
If my sarcasm seems trite, it is because I cannot contain my frustration with the way Israel consistently mishandles these events and turns them into massive, attention-grabbing p.r. victories for its opponents. Let’s dispense with the easy one first. Really, Lieutenant-Colonel Shalom Eisner? Beating people riding their bikes in the West Bank with the butt of your rifle? Even if nobody was filming it, in what universe is this behavior acceptable? How could anything that these protestors have done possibly warranted such a response? Congratulations, you have done wonders for those who believe in their feverish delusions that Israel is a fascist authoritarian rogue police state. None of that matters though, because you have neutralized the devastating threat of devious bike riding protestors bringing down the state. Seems like physically assaulting civilians worked out well for you.
The flytilla response, while not as egregious on its face, is actually the more worrying episode, because unlike an IDF officer suffering a temporary bout of insanity during a fit of rage, Israel’s strategy for dealing with the flytilla protestors was actually planned ahead of time. Let’s imagine for a moment that Israel had simply ignored the flytilla, allowed all of those who planned on gathering in Bethlehem in solidarity with the Palestinians to land in Ben Gurion and go along on their merry way. What’s the worst thing that could have happened? A bunch of Europeans marching in favor of Palestine is not a newsmaking event, and possibly not even a news-covering event. Unlike the Mavi Marmara flotilla, there is no evidence that the flytilla protestors were contemplating violence, and they would have exhausted themselves yelling and chanting, and nobody would have been any worse for the wear. Israel would have demonstrated that, like every other democratic state, it has no problem with peaceful protestors, and no long term damage would have been done.
Instead, Israel treated a bunch of harmless European and American leftists as if they were the combined Arab armies massing on Israel’s borders. The Shin Bet and the Foreign Ministry worked overtime to pressure airlines into canceling passengers’ tickets, cast an absurdly wide net to determine which travelers flying into Israel might have any connection at all to Palestinian groups, detained those who were able to land, and beat up people riding bikes in the Jordan Valley. And what did this accomplish? Well, Israel’s borders are now blissfully secure and the country will not be brought down by nefarious foreigners singing slogans and protest songs. Oh, and Israel made sure that these same protestors were given the most attention possible by the media, that they were treated by Israeli security and intelligence as far more important than anyone else on the entire planet actually thinks they are, and Israel’s reputation for tolerating dissent was dealt yet another severe and public blow. Clearly a well thought out and executed strategy.
Israel cannot continue to live in deathly fear of opposing speech and contrary views. There are legitimate security threats, and there are exercises designed to be circus side shows. By treating the latter as if they are the former, Israel betrays its insecurities and actually weakens its own defense, which is both the irony and the tragedy of this situation. Are Israel’s enemies supposed to quake in fear of Israeli deterrence efforts when it behaves like an elephant that is afraid of a mouse every time a few hundred protestors want to convene in the West Bank? If Israel cannot formulate an effective, measured, proportionately appropriate response to a bunch of people holding picket signs, how can the government be trusted to deal with actual security security situations in which the lives of its citizens are placed in genuine danger? Israel always comes out of these incidents with a black eye, ends up apologizing to some group of people or even a foreign government, and in the end has done nothing to make itself safer or burnish its democratic credentials. By providing the oxygen to sustain and fuel these tiny flames that explode into infernos, Israel only encourages more and more of this behavior, and puts itself into more no-win situations. Please Israel, stop paying heedless attention to flotillas, flytillas, bike-tillas, and any other type of meaningless non-threatening protest. Let pro-Palestinian protestors come to Israel, do their thing, and go home. The rest of the world will soon begin to ignore them, and before you know it, you will too.