By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 4, 2010; 6:34 PM
This is the Israeli version of the deadly raid on an aid ship bound for Gaza:
Operation "Sea Breeze," the Israeli code name for the military action that resulted in the melee, began at midnight Sunday when the Mavi Marmara was about 90 miles off the coast of Haifa.
Israeli forces spent four hours trying to persuade the 300-foot-long Turkish ship to shift course away from Gaza, senior Israeli officials said in a briefing Friday for a small group of reporters.
The activists responded repeatedly with shouts -- "Go back to Auschwitz!" -- and kept the ship at its maximum speed of 10 knots. Now it was 4 a.m., and the ship was 70 miles from the Israeli coast.
Israeli officials ran through the calculations. Colliding with the ship could sink it, given its size and speed. Shooting at a ship with 560 passengers on board, including a baby, could result in casualties. So officials decided to dispatch one commando team (14 soldiers) who would board the upper deck by rappelling off a helicopter, and three other 14-man teams who would board the lower decks by sea.
The officials insist they had no choice but to enforce the blockade of Gaza, controlled by the Hamas militant group, because allowing selective ships to pass would have rendered it legally meaningless. "Either you have a blockade or not," one military official said.
Turkish officials have angrily said that the blockade is illegal, that the assault should not have taken place in international waters and that the use of force was disproportionate and even criminal.
The Israeli officials conceded their intelligence was poor. They thought the soldiers would encounter protesters who might, at worst, chain themselves to prevent access to the ship's control room. The soldiers were equipped with paintball guns and bean bags, and "low-velocity" pistols to protect themselves, the officials said.
The Israeli Defense Forces "was not collecting intelligence on this ship," one of the officials said. "It was legitimate Turkish vessel. We were not spying on a friendly country." He added: "I have to admit were surprised. We did not expect such resistance from humanitarian aid activists."
Initially, the troops threw flash grenades on deck, which are intended to scatter people but the officials acknowledged that civilians might interpret the noise as the sound of weapons. In any case, things quickly went wrong when the first group of commandos -- in the helicopter -- attempted to board the ship.
About 40 activists had gathered on the upper deck, waiting and watching. When the first rappel rope was lowered out of the helicopter, the activists grabbed it and attached it to the ship. Because of the potential danger to the helicopter, the crew had to quickly drop the rope. That left only one rope left for the assault -- and the soldiers coming down it were quickly outmanned.
The first commando was attacked as soon as he hit the deck. Then so was the second, who lost his pistol to an activist. As the fourth soldier came down, he saw an activist use the pistol to shoot the third soldier -- and then began to aim it at him. The fourth soldier quickly pulled out his pistol and shot the activist in the head.
A deadly clash followed.
The Israelis estimate that besides the 40 activists on the upper deck, 30 activists battled the soldiers on lower decks, meaning that the vast majority of the people on board did not participate.
The Israeli commandos began to shift the balance of power within two or three minutes, once the rest of the 56 commandos boarded the ship by sea, the officials said. After 10 minutes, the fight was over and the ship was secure.
But it came at a cost. Nine activists were dead, including a 19-year-old with U.S. citizenship. Turkish media reports say he suffered four head wounds and one chest wound from pistol fire at close range.
Seven IDF soldiers were wounded, including two critically. Three of the soldiers had been captured by the activists. One was so wounded he could not move, but the other two escaped by leaping off the 60-foot-high deck into the ocean.
On board the ship, besides outdated pharmaceutical supplies, toys, blankets and construction materials, officials said they discovered 100 metal rods, 200 knives, 50 wooden clubs and 150 military vests. No guns were found, though a telescopic sight for a gun was recovered. Some of the materials could have been fashioned into potential weapons from the construction supplies on board, officials said.
The activists also had substantial funds, perhaps 1 million euros. Many of the activists who battled the soldiers were each carrying 10,000 euros, which officials speculated meant that they were mercenaries who had been paid to fight.
In the future, one official said, "I guess now we will have to be more cautious."