Flotilla tactics: how an Israeli attack backfired

Brian Martin

Published in Truthout, 27 July 2010. The Truthout version omits references. The 2010 Truthout version included comments.

On 31 May 2010, Israeli commandos attacked protesters on the Free Gaza Flotilla. The attack was a public relations disaster for the Israeli government, greatly increasing support for the Palestinian cause. To understand how this happened, it is useful to analyse the tactics used by the two sides and their relation to public outrage.

When a powerful government uses excessive force against peaceful protesters, this can cause observers to become outraged at the unfairness involved.[1] To minimise this adverse reaction, the attackers commonly use five techniques.[2]

These techniques are regularly used in attacks on protesters, most obviously in dramatic cases such as in the 1960 Sharpeville massacre in South Africa and the 1991 Dili massacre in East Timor.[3] The same sorts of techniques are also found in all sorts of other injustices, including censorship,[4] sexual harassment,[5] police beatings,[6] torture,[7] war[8] and genocide.[9] Therefore, it is predictable that the Israeli government, in its attack on the Free Gaza flotilla, would use the same techniques - and that is exactly what happened.

This is an analysis of tactics, not an examination of why Israeli forces attacked the way they did. Understanding why is complicated because of secrecy and divisions within the Israeli government and military. Tactics are easier to observe, and people often judge an action by methods used rather than the underlying motivation for it.[10]

Tactics may or may not be effective. In some cases effectiveness is easy to judge, but often this is complicated, because there are all sorts of consequences for different groups. So my focus here is on which tactics were used.

Attack on the flotilla: tactics of minimising outrage

Cover up the action

The Israeli attackers did everything possible to reduce the amount of independent information about their attack. This included jamming telecommunications, destroying cameras and other recording devices, and searching passengers for memory cards and confiscating them. After passengers were arrested, they were prevented from being interviewed or otherwise communicating with the outside world until after their release. Likewise, Israeli soldiers were barred from talking to the media.

This effort at limiting access to information was quite effective in reducing the immediate impact of the story. News dribbled out rather than the full picture being dramatically available as it happened.

Devalue the target

Israeli government figures denigrated the participants in the flotilla. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said it "was no love boat - this was a hate boat."[11] He also referred to "a hate flotilla by violent, terrorism-supporting extremists."[12] Netanyahu's comments may not have much credibility among international audiences, but might within some Israeli ones.

Reinterpret the events

The Israeli government presented itself as the victim of an unscrupulous assault. Daniel Carmon, Israel's deputy ambassador to the United Nations, said "Israel did not attack a boat. Israel enforced a maritime blockade, which is a measure that is totally legal in international law, to enforce a blockade when there is a possibility of a danger emanating from some source. And this was exactly the case."[13]Israeli spokespeople framed the encounter as a ferocious attack by aggressive passengers on professional Israeli forces, focusing on the injuries of Israeli commandos.

Official channels

After the attack, the Israeli government came under strong pressure to agree to an independent inquiry into the events. Refusing a UN proposal, the government set up a three-person inquiry of its own, supplemented two international observers who cannot vote on findings. Despite its shortcomings, the inquiry will give the appearance, to some audiences, that the events are being fairly investigated. As an internal inquiry, the chance of a whitewash is high. The UN Human Rights Council has also set up an inquiry.[14] In either case, the inquiry process takes time, allowing public outrage to die down before findings are announced.

Intimidate and reward people involved

The Israeli assault on the flotilla was a form of intimidation of those participating. Many passengers were beaten and treated harshly while detained. This might have deterred some of them - if they were humiliated by their treatment or if they felt susceptible to future bad treatment - from speaking out. It might also deter others from attempting to break the Gaza blockade.

Giving rewards is harder to document. An example would be favourable treatment to journalists or officials who follow the official government line. US journalists, for example, often value their access to government sources, often made available as a de facto reward for coverage welcomed by the government.

In summary, the Israeli government and its supporters, to minimise outrage over its attack on the flotilla, used every one of the usual five methods. However, in this case these methods were not enough: the attack backfired seriously, producing a tremendous surge of popular support for the Palestinian cause - especially for ending the blockade of Gaza - and opposition to Israeli policies and methods.

Attack on the flotilla: tactics for increasing outrage

To fully understand the dynamics of outrage over injustice, it is necessary to look also at ways that targets of attacks can increase public outrage. Each of the five methods of inhibiting outrage can be met with a corresponding counter-method.

Each of these methods was used by flotilla members and their supporters.

Expose the attack

Flotilla participants carried large numbers of cameras, phones and telecommunication equipment. Although Israeli forces destroyed or confiscated most of this equipment, some escaped. For example, Kate Geraghty, an experienced photographer for the Sydney Morning Herald, took numerous pictures, regularly switching memory cards so her images were on several different cards. She hid the cards on her body; Israeli forces found only some of them. After she was released from custody, her photos were published.[15]

Validate the target

The flotilla passengers included a range of people with high status, such as academics, parliamentarians and filmmakers. Therefore, the protesters - and witnesses to the attack - could not easily be dismissed as terrorists and criminals. When experienced journalists and experienced members of parliament vouch for what happened, it is more credible. When they are treated harshly - as many of them were - then outrage is increased in groups in which they are known.

Interpret the attack as unjust

Flotilla supporters emphasised their humane intention of providing supplies to Gaza, the subject of an oppressive Israeli government blockade that punishes an entire population.

Mobilise support; avoid or discredit official channels

To maximise outrage, it is better to concentrate on exposing the attack and focusing on the key injustice, namely the treatment of people in Gaza. No trust should be put into an Israeli government inquiry, or indeed any other inquiry. Even if an inquiry came up with findings critical of the government, the whole process takes a long time and allows outrage to decline. It is far better to undertake one's own documentation of events and provide information to relevant audiences.

Resist intimidation and rewards

The flotilla was a living testament to resistance. After the killings and arrests and bad treatment, participants continued to speak out. In the case of the flotilla, continuing to act and speak is the most important form of resistance.


The attack on the flotilla was widely seen an injustice, mainly because the level of force used by Israeli commandos against protesters was so much greater than the force used by a few of the protesters. The Israeli government and its supporters used several methods to reduce outrage from the attack. Most successful was limiting access to timely information through blocking telecommunications and confiscating or destroying recording devices. Attempts to discredit the protesters and to frame the attack as legitimate were largely unsuccessful.

Future flotillas

Each side in the engagement can learn from the experience of the May 2010 flotilla. The core issue is the outside perception of injustice. For example, one way that Israeli attackers might adjust is to use less lethal force and instead to rely more on so-called non-lethal weapons, like the electroshock weapons used in the 31 May attack, which received little attention.

Israeli attackers might also reduce the appearance of injustice by encouraging those on the flotilla to use greater force - or at least to be seen to use greater force - and by disseminating vivid pictures of violence by protesters. To be more effective against such a strategy, future protesters need to be seen as avoiding the use of force. The more they are seen to be the targets of a one-sided attack, the greater the outrage. The more the engagement is seen as violence versus violence, the lower the outrage.

"When we use violence, we help Israel win international support," said Aziz Dweik, a leading Hamas lawmaker in the West Bank. "The Gaza flotilla has done more for Gaza than 10,000 rockets."[16]

In intercepting a flotilla, there are two potential injustices: the attack on the flotilla and blocking supplies needed in Gaza. Future protesters can do more to highlight the value of their cargo for people in Gaza, and to display the cargo in ways that can be captured on camera, so that stopping a ship means stopping the supply of desperately needed goods.

Israeli attackers probably will again try to discredit the protesters. To counter this, it would be good to have many respected figures aboard. Jørgen Johansen, from War Resisters' International, to emphasise this point, humorously says the ideal figures would be the Pope, Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama. I think even better would be Hollywood and sporting celebrities like Julia Roberts and Roger Federer. It would also be wise to avoid involving anyone who could be discredited easily, for example through links with violent organisations.

Some days after the attack on the flotilla, the Israeli government said it had eased the blockade. Future protesters need to do more to highlight the operation of the blockade, the suffering caused by it, and its illegality. This is part of the struggle over interpretations.

Protesters need to be aware that inquiries almost always reduce outrage, because some people believe that formal investigations are a way of providing justice, and meanwhile the slow and technical process of carrying them out allows public concern to fade away. Rather than demanding an inquiry, it would be better to collect documentation, testimonies and images ,and make a vivid story about Gaza and the blockade. A possible alternative is to set up an independent people's inquiry.

The news media are attracted to events that involve conflict and that are dramatic and original. The May 2010 flotilla was exciting enough to attract many mainstream media. Future flotillas will not have the same novelty value, so it is important to think carefully about how information will be communicated to interested audiences, for example through social media.

Are deaths needed to generate public outrage? The answer is no. Many lesser events - such as the beating of Rodney King - arouse a sense of unfairness. There are two keys to backfire. The first is that the event is perceived as unjust. If protesters are resolutely and obviously peaceful, then a brutal attack, without anyone dying, can generate outrage. The second key is that credible information about the attack is communicated to receptive audiences.

Flotillas are just one way to oppose injustice in Gaza. A careful analysis of likely tactics is needed to be effective. Those who attack are likely to use cover-up, devaluation, reinterpretation, official channels and intimidation, so protesters need to be prepared to use effective counter-tactics.

I thank Cynthia Boaz, Jørgen Johansen and Steve Wright for valuable comments.


1. Gene Sharp, The Politics of Nonviolent Action (Boston: Porter Sargent, 1973), pp. 657-703.

2. Brian Martin, Justice Ignited: The Dynamics of Backfire (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007); "Backfire materials," http://www.bmartin.cc/pubs/backfire.html

3. Martin, Justice Ignited, pp. 9-33.

4. Sue Curry Jansen and Brian Martin, "Making censorship backfire," Counterpoise, Vol. 7, No. 3, July 2003, pp. 5-15.

5. Paula McDonald, Tina Graham and Brian Martin, "Outrage management in cases of sexual harassment as revealed in judicial decisions," Psychology of Women Quarterly, in press.

6. Brian Martin, "The beating of Rodney King: the dynamics of backfire," Critical Criminology, Vol. 13, No. 3, 2005, pp. 307-326.

7. Brian Martin and Steve Wright, "Countershock: mobilizing resistance to electroshock weapons," Medicine, Conflict and Survival, Vol. 19, No. 3, July-September 2003, pp. 205-222.

8. Brian Martin, "Iraq attack backfire," Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 39, No. 16, 17-23 April 2004, pp. 1577-1583.

9. Brian Martin, "Managing outrage over genocide: case study Rwanda," Global Change, Peace & Security, Vol. 21, No. 3, 2009, pp. 275-290.

10. Max Abrahms, "Why terrorism does not work," International Security, Vol. 31, No. 2, Fall 2006, pp. 42-78.

11. Andy Soltis, "Love boat? No, a 'hate boat'," New York Post, 3 June 2010 http://www.nypost.com/p/news/international/love_boat_8h26QiXTwy7kl8mtiOMpwJ?CMP=OTC-rss&FEEDNAME

12. Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Cabinet Communique, 6 June 2010, http://www.mfa.gov.il/MFA/Government/Communiques/2010/Cabinet_6-Jun-2010.htm

13. "Israel's Explanation for Deadly Gaza Aid Attack 'Full of Holes as a Window Screen' - Former US Ambassador Edward Peck," http://www.democracynow.org/2010/6/2/israels_explanation_for_deadly_gaza_aid

14. "UN rights body names team to probe Gaza flotilla raid," Haaretz.com, 25 July 2010, http://www.haaretz.com/news/diplomacy-defense/un-rights-body-names-team-to-probe-gaza-flotilla-raid-1.303683

15. Kate Geraghty, "The photos they didn't want seen," Sydney Morning Herald, 4 June 2010, p. 1, http://www.smh.com.au/world/the-photos-they-didnt-want-seen-20100603-x7ex.html

16. Charles Levinson, "Israel's foes embrace new resistance tactics," Wall Street Journal, 4 July 2010, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704638504575318390063707222.html.

Go to

Backfire materials

Brian Martin's publications

Brian Martin's website