Twitter correctly identified a link between MH17 and Gaza, but still got the story all wrong

July 17 was a little unusual over at the New York Times: for a brief time, the paper’s homepage featured two headlines: Ukraine’s downed plane on top, and Israel’s invasion of Gaza immediately below.

Sadly, I did not manage to capture a screenshot, but I clearly remember thinking to myself that it was an unusual coincidence for the two events to have occurred at almost precisely the same time.

But many on Twitter — and, undoubtedly, elsewhere — did not share my sense of wonder. Indeed, they were convinced that the timing of Israel’s invasion was no accident. They immediately concluded that Israel would cynically exploit the world’s inattention in order to massacre civilians in Gaza.

I find the sheer volume of the conspiracy astounding — and my “research” was less than perfectly-thorough:

One well-known pundit even took the opportunity to suggest that the Israeli government would somehow manage to twist the incident in Ukraine into a perverse justification for the coming bloody ground invasion:

But when a Hamas rocket evaded Iron Dome and flattened a home near Israel’s Ben Gurion International Airport just days later, and forced the FAA to temporarily suspend flights to and from Israel, I failed to sense a disturbance in the Twitter — as if millions of users suddenly cried out in terror, and were just as suddenly silenced. Instead, crickets. And hence, this post.

Turns out, “the crowd” was prescient enough to draw a link between the tragedy in Ukraine and the ongoing tragedies in Israel and Gaza, but was totally clueless when it came to fitting the puzzle pieces together. If the events in Ukraine and Gaza are connected at all — the balance of this post notwithstanding, I’m unconvinced — it’s not because Israel decided to use the downing of the plane as a diversion. Rather, it’s because Israel began to seriously consider the risk that one of its flights might end up strewn across 35 square kilometers.

According to statistics cited Sunday by United States Senator Charles “Chuck” Schumer, “since 1973, at least 30 civilian aircraft have been downed by shoulder fired missiles, killing about 920 people.” Shoulder-fired missiles have an extremely limited range. It would be possible to use one to target Ben Gurion International Airport from the West Bank — one reason Israel insists it would like to maintain security control over any future Palestinian State — but no shoulder-fired missile from Gaza could threaten commercial aviation in Israel.

But what happened in Ukraine starkly illuminated risks of an altogether different order of magnitude. Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 (MH17) was taken down at an altitude of over 30,000 feet. A similar missile launched from northern Gaza could easily reach commercial flights into and out of Ben Gurion. Israel has long been concerned by the prospect of its enemies obtaining such capabilities, which is why it once risked bombing a convoy in Syria — to prevent a shipment of SA-17 missiles (prime suspects in the Malaysian Airlines tragedy) from reaching Hezbollah. (It is of course entirely possible that other missile-laden convoys successfully avoided Israeli detection, and will be unleashed during the inevitable coming confrontation (inevitable if only because Hezbollah has all those new toys to play with).)

The systems required to launch the missiles are large, which makes them difficult to slip through Israel’s current blockade of the Gaza Strip. But Hamas has managed to get its hands on other large weapons systems — including Iranian-designed/made Fajr 5 rockets, one of which appears to have been responsible for the failed launch rocket that instead killed ten people, including eight or nine children, in a Gaza playground Monday — and could easily obtain more by land or by sea were Israel to remove its blockade of the territory (as Hamas would unsurprisingly win).

In short, the attack in Ukraine woke up Israel to what it already knew: that a Hamas just marginally more-capable than it already is could achieve what BDS has yet to accomplish — Israel’s physical isolation on the international stage. I doubt the Israeli security establishment expected that an errant Qassam rocket (such rockets are errant almost by definition) would achieve a near-total shutdown of Ben Gurion quite so soon. But on July 17, Israel found itself living in a post-MH17 world, a world more sensitive to the risks faced by commercial flights in combat zones, and one in which it takes but minimal threat to bring a major international airport to its knees.

In the end, no Israeli politician had to make the case that what happened in Ukraine somehow justified military action against Hamas — Hamas (with some help from the FAA) made it for them.

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