While much remains unclear about the early-morning Israeli raid on a humanitarian aid flotilla bound for Gaza that left nine people dead, what is apparent is that some poor decisions were made — both by the pro-Palestinian activists who chose to defy the Israeli naval blockade and by those who sent the Israeli equivalent of the Navy SEALs rappelling down ropes from Black Hawk helicopters onto the ship's deck at 4 a.m. Monday's violence could prove a serious setback to Israel's long-term security interests; it left Israel deeply isolated, and that is a much graver threat than whatever those ships were carrying.
Whether the Israeli commandos were merely defending themselves or fired first, as the flotilla's organizers claim, may be the least of the issues raised. The navy's choice to use such high-risk tactics to intercept such potentially low-risk cargo has already set off considerable debate in Israel over national security decision-making and the failure to involve top officials.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would be wise to issue some form of apology over the incident and not place the entire blame for the casualties on the provocative actions of activists and the flotilla's Turkey-based organizers. The raid has already devastated diplomatic relations with Turkey, Israel's closest friend in the Muslim world.
At the very least, he must acknowledge some culpability here. A nation that has lived through two intifadas should have known better than to so foolishly allow itself to be drawn into such a potentially explosive situation.
Israel would also be well-advised to conduct a thorough and independent judicial investigation into what happened on the Mavi Marmara and the process that led to it. That would offer the best chance to restore some modicum of trust in the international community.
Nevertheless, Israel has legitimate cause to keep more weapons out of Gaza, which is ruled by Hamas, the Iran-supported organization that does not recognize Israel's right to exist. Last year's conflict between Israel and Hamas has already been devastating to the territory. That's why humanitarian aid is so desperately needed there.
As long as Hamas is in power, Israel is justified in maintaining some sort of blockade, but continuing to try to enforce it alone is a recipe for more debacles like this one. These were not the first ships to attempt to break the blockade, and they won't be the last — at least one more is on its way now. Even if Israel had successfully stopped these ships without bloodshed, it would not have stopped the attempts to bring supplies to Gaza, and it would have been confronted again and again until something like this happened.
What is required now is a means to get humanitarian supplies to Gaza that does not conflict with Israel's legitimate security needs. One alternative would be to agree on a third party, perhaps a United Nations representative, to inspect cargo.
No doubt the incident has further soured Israel's relations with the Obama administration, particularly given U.S.-led efforts to foster indirect talks between Israelis and Palestinians. But it need not permanently damage them if mistakes can be acknowledged and corrected — and if all involved are willing to make a few reasonable compromises.