In the Middle East nothing is ever what it seems. We have heard that the Gaza flotilla was on a humanitarian mission. Well, five of the six ships were, unloading their cargo in the Israeli port of Ashdod, but the Mavi Marmara was not, provoking an Israeli assault.

This attack was “contrary to international law”, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s prime minister, proclaimed. But in a state of war, as exists between Hamas-ruled Gaza and Israel, a blockade is not exactly a crime. Egypt has been sealing off Gaza by land and nobody has ever accused Cairo of breaching any conventions.

It was “state terrorism”, said Mr Erdogan. Yet terrorists do not dispatch solicitous messages, as Israel did when it radioed that it “approves the delivery of humanitarian supplies and invites you to enter the Ashdod port, after which you can return to your home ports”.

Terrorists come to kill. The Israelis came with paintballs. The troops, as a tape released by the Israel Defence Forces shows, clearly thought they were under fire. “Real weapons, real guns?” cries out one commando. “Yes, yes, real weapons!”

Was the Israeli response “disproportionate”, as President Nicolas Sarkozy of France claimed? That nine people died seems to deliver a resounding yes. But Israel’s action was incompetent, not heinous. The Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 protects civilians but also says that if they are “engaged in activities hostile to the security of the state”, they shall not enjoy “such rights and privileges”.

Humanitarians do not come armed with rods and slingshots. The Turkish charity that organised the foray, Insani Yardim Vakfi (better known by its German acronym IHH), is viewed with suspicion by too many intelligence services to qualify as the friendly aid outfit as which it poses.

But let us look beyond the Mavi Marmara. Though Israelis and Palestinians get most of the limelight, much of the script is written elsewhere. The newest entrant in the larger drama is Turkey, where the flotilla was financed and put to sea. Ankara’s fierce response to the incident was a rallying cry to the region.

Next to Iran, Nato member Turkey is now the biggest headache for the west. With Egypt sinking into torpor and Riyadh firmly ensconced on the fence between Washington and Tehran, Turkey has seen the leadership of the region up for grabs – and is going for it. It has drawn Syria into its orbit and has reached a nuclear deal with Iran, its rival for hegemony.

What better way to pursue this end than to lead a crusade against the Jewish state? Going after the “Little Satan” is the card that trumps them all, and it embarrasses the “Great Satan” to boot. The real game is about dominance at the expense of America, which US President Barack Obama has yet to grasp. Neither has Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister. Sailing into the Turkish trap was a blunder worthy of General Custer at Little Big Horn.

The clumsy execution damages the IDF’s reputation. Why did those commandos abseil down on to a deck swarming with well-prepared defenders? Why not use water cannon and teargas – any kind of non-lethal force – if board you must? Check the videos and you see those “civilians” doing just the right thing: tying the abseil ropes to the hull, forcing the pilots to forgo the advantage of a rapid, intimidating drop. To disable the Mavi Marmara’s screw and rudder would have killed no one but would have kept her from breaking the blockade.

Israel has Turkish guile and its own folly to thank for this tragedy. Israel must learn, as it should have after the Lebanon war of 2006 and the Gaza war of 2009, that for it to kill civilians is precisely what its enemies want. The US must learn that the real contest is between itself, Turkey and Iran. It is now up against both.

The arena extends from Ankara to Kabul, and the issue is who shall be umpire. Mr Obama thinks that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the source of all trouble. If it were, Iran would not be trying to develop nuclear weapons and Turkey would not be seeking mastery over its ancient domain. Nor were Palestinians on the mind of the previous claimants to hegemony – from Nasser’s Egypt to Saddam’s Iraq. Remember that the deadliest and longest war in the region was between Iraq and Iran.

Terror in Pakistan, Iraq, Turkey and Afghanistan is not designed to uproot Jewish settlements. It is not Israel that motivates Syria’s recolonisation of Lebanon. Turkey and Iran are not vying for control so as to promote a two-state solution.

Palestine has got nothing to do with it. But it shares a tragic fate with Israel. Whenever the two start talking, somebody will set a trap or throw a bomb. To borrow from Churchill: in the Middle East, it is easier to war-war than to jaw-jaw.

The writer is editor of Die Zeit, a senior fellow at Stanford’s Institute for International Studies and Abramowitz fellow of the Hoover Institution

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