Lost at sea

There should be no doubt, now, about the outcome of the most serious waterborne challenge to Israel's counterproductive blockade of the Gaza, despite the swamp of propaganda and "spin" from all sides.

People died, many were injured, Israel's global reputation suffered another public relations defeat, and the people of Gaza continued to be pawns in a hostile diplomatic and strategic contest.

For many in New Zealand, it will have come as something of a surprise that, first, the blockade existed; second, that Israel would use armed force to prevent what appears in essence a delivery of humanitarian aid; and third, that Israel under an earlier government allowed such deliveries while under the present it has forbidden and intercepted them.

Hundreds of people were reportedly on board the nine-ship flotilla, the biggest so far, and many were prominent activists or representatives of various peace and Palestinian support groups.

They also included a Nobel peace laureate, authors, film-makers, politicians and journalists from countries around the world.

They were a part of the Free Gaza Movement's campaign to break Israel's two-year blockage, imposed after Hamas took political control of the Gaza in 2006.

Muslim Turkey, Israel's former closest regional "friend", had informed the Israel Government that the flotilla was carrying medical supplies, housing material and other humanitarian aid, not arms.

It had been organised by, among others, the Turkish human rights organisation, the Istanbul-based Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief.

Turkey had urged Israel to allow it safe passage.

Instead, after issuing warnings not to proceed - which were provocatively ignored - Israeli commandos stormed the ships in the darkness of night in international waters.

The resulting violent confrontation saw the killing and injuring of many passengers, and the actual taking of the ships into custody along with their cargo, passengers and crews.

By any measure, this was a one-sided encounter.

Did Israel seriously believe the opposite likelihood?The UN Security Council's emergency meeting - an early indication of the seriousness with which world opinion views the incident - predictably followed, with Palestinians and the Arab nations demanding condemnation and an independent investigation, the lifting of the blockade and the freeing of those in Israeli custody, together with the delivery of the humanitarian aid.

In some countries, however, the call was for much more severe penalties against Israel.

Israel defended its action, saying some of the activists were known terrorists using the guise of humanitarianism to foment violence against it.

It claims its blockade is legal, and that the various organisations providing the aid had refused the offer of sending the cargo through Israel to the Gaza rather than to a Gaza port.

Given recent history, it is unlikely Israel will be punished with meaningful sanctions, especially while the United States remains its chief protector.

Might is right where nuclear powers are concerned, no matter how high the decibel level of condemnation.

An investigation, even at United Nations level, is unlikely to trouble Israel.

Our own Government's response typifies this impotence, being confined to a statement of disapproval and calling for restraint from all parties.

The Government did make the point, however, that the "situation in Gaza is not sustainable".

Indeed it is not.

It is deeply regrettable that Israel and Hamas refuse to recognise that reality.

A rational description of Israel's high seas assault is that it was a severe over-reaction to a situation that could - and should - have been managed in a far more moderate, less assertive manner.

The commandos "slid from helicopters into a violent crowd, which attacked them with sticks.

It's no wonder the troops opened fire in self-defence," as one Israeli commentator put it, with more than a trace of irony.

By so doing, he added, "Israel walked straight into the trap that the flotilla organisers set . . ."

If this was really a planned effort to meet and contain the flotilla, it must be counted a tactical and military failure; an opportunity for Israel to earn praise ended in fiasco.

The nature of the confrontation and the ensuing tragedy of death and injury will greatly complicate efforts to find an enduring peaceful solution to the problem of accommodating a Palestinian state in the Middle East.

It is to be wondered just how much prior knowledge of the action was known to the Israeli prime minister and the United States president, who had been due to meet this week in an effort to improve relations.

To all outward appearances, the timing could not have been worse - if Israel and the US are indeed intent on improving opportunities for a peaceful resolution.