Based on numerous reports from various parties, my conclusion is that the IDF raid on the Mavi Marmara was a tactical failure of the first order. In their partial defense, there had been no violence on any of the previously boarded vessels. On the other hand, the manner in which the last vessel was boarded (as I understand it at present) suggests that they were expecting trouble.
The problem was a reliance on military tactics in a police situation, a version of the "if all you have is a hammer everything looks like a nail" phenomenon. The other problem was way too few soldiers with way too much firepower. Both of these are very typical IDF approaches that have led to disastrous outcomes in the past.
1) First, a legal point. In fact international law *does* permit Israel (or anyone else) to board a vessel in international waters if they have good reason to believe that the vessel is on its way to breach a legal blockade. (The legality of the blockade itself is, obviously, another question.)
2) It looks to me like the sequence went like this:
- IDF forces fire teargas and stun grenades in order to create open landing zones for the commandos. But it didn't work.
- The commandos descend from the helicopters. Initially, they really are trying to avoid casualties -- their first weapons are paintball guns.
- The commandos are set upon by men armed (or "equipped" if you prefer) with bars and wooden staves. Because -- stupidly -- the commandos are coming down one at a time, each one is immediately surrounded and isolated, making them vulnerable. One, at least, is thrown overboard, which is a definitely life-threatening thing to have happen to someone who is 30 feet above the water line and in full (heavy) gear. Others suffer serious injuries.
- One or more weapons are seized from the commandos and turned on the attackers.
- The commandos open fire with live ammunition. One thing to note is the repeated use of the word "lynching" in statements from IDF personnel. You have to recognize how much IDF soldiers live with the image of the lynching of their comrades in Ramallah in 2000 -- that's an important part of the psychological background.
The obvious question is "okay, so what would you have done?" Here's my answer.
1) Foul the propellers to stop the ships. At that point, you can simply tow them to a safe harbor and proceed as carefully as you want. Assuming that there is a felt need to board immediately, proceed to step 2.
2) Surround and isolate each vessel using superior numbers.
3) Bring a large vessel alongside, or better yet one on each side. The Israeli Navy does not have many large ships -- I think corvettes are about as big as they get -- but there are plenty of Israeli-owned cargo and passenger vessels in the harbor at Haifa. The government knew the "flotilla" was coming, they had plenty of time to commandeer one of these larger ships. That would have meant that boarding would be carried out from a stable platform level with or above the deck of the ship being boarded, which makes all the difference in the world.
4) Have police in riot gear (kevlar helmets, face masks, fiberglass shields) board in large numbers -- not single commandos dropping from helicopters or swarming up in groups of two or three from rubber dinghies. If necessary, use tear gas and water hoses to clear the deck in order to permit boarding. No rubber bullets, no live ammo -- this is not Hebron, and they are not throwing rocks at you. Here's my suggestion: craft a bunch of aluminum ramps with lockable backward-facing "C"-shaped clamps on the bottom (the students in my son's dorm could come up with these in about 48 hours.) Lay these across and attach them to the gunwales of the target vessel, if necessary using hoses to clear a space. It just takes a second, and if you line up, say, 10 of these next to each other you have a highway from one vessel to the other. Now the police cross, 10 abreast and 5 deep.
5) Once aboard, use the tactics that urban police forces have been using in riot situations for the past 50 years. Advance slowly to secure the deck. Detain and take into custody as many people as possible, and carry them back to the Israeli ship. Those who are not resisting -- like the 85- year old Holocaust survivor who was on board, for example -- should be escorted off peacefully. Those who resist should be dealt with the same way police forces all over the world deal with rioters: put them down, put plastic clips on their wrists, carry them away. Take your time -- you have all day.
6) In the event that a hardcore group barricade themselves in the wheelhouse (sound familiar, Exodus fans?) deal with it exactly in the way that British forces dealt with exactly the same situation on the Exodus: tear gas and police. Worst case, you crack a few skulls with billy clubs, but there is no need for live ammunition and nobody is killed.
7) Having secured the deck, proceed down to the next level. This should be easier rather than harder, since now police can descend down the various stairways all at once. Obtaining copies of the ship's blueprints -- which should be readily available -- ahead of time is a good idea. Using ladders to drop into cargo holds is another way to get down to the next level quickly, and establishes forces converging from multiple directions.
6) Videotape everything extensively, and make the tapes immediately available.
All of this takes planning, personnel, and money -- but the IDF is supposed to be good at that. They will soon have a chance to do better: a ship called the Rachel Corrie is steaming toward Gaza as I write this.