Friday, July 8, 2011

Israeli Soft Power Crushing Free Gaza Movement

Have you heard from the Gaza flotilla much lately? Probably not, unless you are looking for information. Gaza is 1.5 million people denied legitimacy for self-governance who are basically caged in by what can be described as prison walls on all sides. One would think this is one group of people that could find sympathy, particularly when the oppressor is Israel.

Nope! Not with friends like the Free Gaza Movement. Israel is putting on a soft power clinic in dealing with non-governmental organizations attempting to make political splashes from the shadow zones, and the whole world would be wise to learn from the approach Israel has taken against the second flotilla. Israel has turned the Gaza flotilla into a flotilla flop in a remarkably systematic way. This summary of events posted by Melanie Phillips on June 29th is a MUST READ.

Already, the number of flotillistas has been whittled down from 1500 to 350, and the number of boats from 15 to ten. Most of the credit should surely go to the Israeli activist law firm Shurat haDin which believes in bankrupting terrorism through a creative use of the law. Here are some of the legal challenges to the flotilla which Shurat HaDin has initiated with seismic effect.
  • It sent letters to all the maritime insurance companies in Europe and Turkey, warning them that if they provided the flotilla boats with insurance (a necessary component in the effort to smuggle contraband to the terrorists) that they themselves would be legally liable for any future terrorist attacks perpetrated by Hamas.
  • It filed an unprecedented lawsuit to seize the flotilla boats. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of an American terror victim injured by a Palestinian suicide bomber.
  • It sent warning letters to a French insurance company warning it not to insure a boat that was to be launched from Marseilles. The company accordingly decided not to provide the French boat with insurance.
  • After the main Turkish boat the Mavi Marmara pulled out of the flotilla, the New York Times reported that one reason (along with political pressure) was the boat’s inability to obtain maritime insurance.
  • It sent warning letters to the UK and US based global satellite company INMARSAT, stating that it might be liable for massive damages and criminal prosecution if it provided communication services to ships used by suspected terror organizations in the flotilla. Then a resident of the southern Israeli town of Sderot filed a legal suit asserting that, under US law, Inmarsat was aiding and abetting terrorism by providing satellite services to the flotilla vessels.
  • This week the New York Times reported that Greek authorities had detained two of the ships docked in Greece, including an American vessel, after Shurat haDin complained to the Greek Coast Guard suggesting that seven of the ships might be lacking insurance or were improperly registered.
Since that post it has only steadily got worse for the flotilla as ship after ship has dropped out, including the US flagged Audacity of Hope which tried to leave port without permission and ended up with the vessels American Captain thrown into jail temporarily. Not surprisingly, the US State Department didn't help the flotilla folks when they ran into trouble in Greece.

Last year, on the same day that Israel took on the first flotilla directly with their hard power approach that ended in spectacular public political failure, LCDR Claude Berube published an article on the Small Wars Journal titled The Ship is the Visual, Even in the Shadow Zones. While the SWJ article focused on other non-governmental organizations like Sea Shepherd and Women on Waves (WoW), the article suggested a series of recommendations on how nations can confront non-state actors in the maritime domain to stay ahead of NGO political activities at sea. The article recommended an approach of Adapting, Adopting, and Adeptness.
First, opposition to these entities must mean adapting faster than them in operations and tactics. This will mean, in part, establishing ROEs that permit effective responses rather than restrict operations from achieving success... WoW, for example, encountered Dutch law when the government found that the license to carry the A-Portable did not mean that the organization had a license to convey abortion pills on a sailboat. Finding similar avenues for pirates or other entities might be as beneficial as remembering that the gangster Al Capone was not imprisoned for murder or violating prohibition laws – he was jailed for tax evasion.

Second, although U.S. interest groups may be averse to doing so, the Navy should adopt a more flexible and innovative force structure that, in addition to traditional warship might include less obvious commercial platforms...

Third, it must be adept in public relations at countering potential propaganda or challenges early and clearly. The battle plan, even in the maritime environment, must include the airwaves, or the 21st century equivalent. Winning the war of ideas will be as important for maritime incidents or potentially prolonged engagements in the littorals to get the message out.
Israel appears to have operationalized the Adapting, Adopting, and Adeptness model with the latest Gaza flotilla. As Melanie Phillips laid out, by targeting INMARSAT and maritime insurance companies with advisory letters ahead of the flotilla, Israel set the bar very high on the issue of compliance to law. Israel has essentially leveraged a lawfare model often effectively leveraged by NGOs against states back against the Free Gaza Movement. The media has frequently discussed the behind the scenes pressure by the United States and Israel, but they have been short on details regarding the pressure points. You see, the Israeli's and US are pressuring Europeans to rigidly enforce their own laws. That puts a lot of pressure on organizations like the Greek Coast Guard not to make any mistakes, and the resulting red tape is burying the flotilla every time a vessel makes port. Pardon me while I laugh that the most leveraged weapon by Israel against the flotilla so far is European government bureaucracy.

If you have been following the progress of the flotilla, you will note that every vessel in the flotilla has a tail. The Gaza flotilla folks are very smart to call those vessels "commando ships" and other usefully inciting terms, but in several cases they are glorified small yacht type vessels with Israeli monitors tracking the progress of each Free Gaza flotilla vessel. The US Navy could learn a lot from Israel in how to adopt a different force structure quickly to address low intensity threats to maritime security, like piracy. The international coalition can't afford enough warships to track all the pirate motherships while staying focused on other regional commitments, but the international coalition can afford much less expensive vessels that can perform the role of tracking motherships. Security forces that included Navy, Marines, and a CG representative could be spread around to provide defense for the many smaller vessels and would be more than sufficient security against pirates. The key point here is that Israel was willing to adopt a new force structure to meet the Free Gaza flotilla challenge. The US Navy has not, at any point in the 21st century that I can tell, demonstrated such nimble flexibility to make those kind of tactical adjustments to maritime security threats. Attention Congress - that IS a red flag.

Israel adeptness in the information domain is remarkable. On the diplomatic front, Israel has successfully made the case that at this time, there is no humanitarian "crisis" in Gaza - and this point has been reported in many media articles discussing the flotilla. Furthermore, Israel has publicly made clear that anyone who wants to provide supplies to Gaza can do so through Israeli and Egyptian land routes. Israel has emphasized the changes to the blockade policy made last year following the first flotilla, which is actually a clever approach because it suggests a public diplomacy message that Israel has already conceded to international demands on the blockade issue. Israel has also successfully framed the second flotilla as a provocation thanks to broad distribution of comments made by Adam Shapiro, co-founder of the International Solidarity Movement and a board member of the Free Gaza Movement. In the same article by Melanie Phillips quoted above, the video later in the article shows Mr. Shapiro saying this followed by applause.
Free Gaza is but one tactic of a larger strategy, to transform this conflict from one between Israel and the Palestinians, or Israel and the Arab world…to one between the rest of the world and Israel.
Adam Shapiro is clearly an idiot, because his comments have cleverly been used by those sympathetic to Israel to frame the perception of the second Gaza Flotilla as nothing more than a scam with alternative objectives to the stated objective of delivering humanitarian aid to Gaza. The Free Gaza flotilla isn't finding public sympathy except by people who are already sympathetic to Gaza, and only with new people actively engaged and sympathetic to the flotilla cause can the Free Gaza Movement win the media. Without gaining public support and sympathy high ground in the media, the Gaza flotilla is a failure.

The media coverage of the flotilla has been remarkably good in my opinion. As events unfolded, the media have been reporting on the activities of the Free Gaza movement, and because all of those activities have been setbacks to their objectives, there are no successes for the media to report. From the beginning, the objective of the flotilla as an action was the political message, and every message to date has made the Free Gaza movement look like clowns in a circus, and I think some of the frustration that is being posted online suggests that even people sympathetic to Gaza and opposed to the Israel blockade see the Free Gaza movement as clowns. The control by Israel of the information domain has been thoroughly demoralizing for the Free Gaza Movement, hitting their supporters harder and harder with each consecutive setback.

Consider how thoroughly Israel has whipped the Free Gaza movement... when the flotilla became a flop, many activists attempted a "Flytilla", which itself has been ineffective due to blocks by airline companies in Europe. What are the odds those airline companies have threatening letters from Israeli lawyers in hand? The "Flytilla" is such a flop on it's own that very few major newspapers have even bothered to report the stunt. Israel has so thoroughly dominated the Free Gaza Movements messaging that Israel now drives the narrative, and when Israel controls the narrative, that often means no broad media coverage for those competing in the information domain against Israel.

As information wars go, the humiliation of the Free Gaza movement by Israel has been a masterpiece of soft power strategic communications. There is a lot to learn here.

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