Leading article: A costly misjudgement by Israel

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Exactly what happened in the eastern Mediterranean in the pre-dawn hours of yesterday remains to be clarified. The immediate results, however, are all too apparent. A flotilla of boats carrying aid for Palestinians in Gaza was forcibly halted by Israeli forces; the lead ship was stormed by Israeli commandos; at least 10 of the 581 people on board were killed, and many more were injured. If Israel's international reputation was in negative territory before this happened – and it was only just beginning to recover from the damage done by its lethally heavy-handed invasion of Gaza at the start of 2009 – it is now back where it was in those darkest of days. The outcry has been universal.

Confused though the picture might be, however, what has so far emerged conforms to a pattern that has become all too familiar. Confronted with a situation it saw as threatening, Israel applied massive armed force – force that would appear, at least, to have been out of all proportion to the circumstances. Acting apparently without warning, Israeli forces closed in when the boats were still in international waters, 40 miles from the coast. At that point there was no immediate threat, as most people would see it, either to Israel's blockade, or to its national security – and these are not necessarily the same thing.

Yes, it can be argued that the aid flotilla was conceived by the Free Gaza Movement (FGM) as a deliberate provocation. The presence of elderly people and at least one baby on the boats does not detract from that. And yes, it can be argued that the plan to breach Israel's sea blockade of Gaza was foolhardy. Israel insists that its blockade is designed to thwart arms shipments destined for Hamas. It was never going to stand idly by as the ships came within reach of the coast, however peaceful FGM's leaders might have professed their intentions to be.

The catastrophe and the shame is that this is not the first time such an unequal confrontation has taken place. Time and again, Israel has found itself applying military force and swiftly prevailing, only to lose whatever moral high ground it had at the outset. No one – at least no one in an internationally recognised government with the possible exception of Iran – disputes Israel's right to defend itself if its security is threatened. But since Hamas seized control of Gaza three years ago, Israel has repeatedly shown itself at its worst. It is not only the vast imbalance between Israel's professional military might and the armed fighters of Hamas. Nor is it only the suffering caused to Gaza's residents and the apparent irrationality of many aspects of the blockade – including the ban on building materials needed to repair the war damage.

Above all, it is Israel's abject failure to devise ways of defending itself other than by overwhelming military force. Faced with mass demonstrations or aid shipments that are cast by their organisers as peaceful, Israel still has no answer beyond a call to arms. It cannot, therefore, be surprised when most of the rest of the world then judges the means to be excessive and disproportionate to the ends.

The longer-term cost of yesterday's attack goes beyond the deaths and injuries. It is not only Arab countries to varying degrees hostile to Israel that are united in their indignation. Turkey was one of Israel's few friends in the region, but relations, already deteriorating, are now at rock bottom. The Turkish Prime Minister described Israel's action as "state terrorism". Nor can a new Palestinian intifada be ruled out. But what this whole sorry and destructive chapter also demonstrates is the urgent need for a negotiated end to the isolation of Gaza. This is in everyone's interests, including Israel's. After yesterday, however, it looks even further away than ever.

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