Resistance on Gaza flotilla more than expected, Israeli military chief says

By Joel Greenberg
Thursday, August 12, 2010

JERUSALEM -- Israel's military chief testified Wednesday at an inquiry into a deadly raid on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla that although troops had been trained for a violent confrontation, the military had not anticipated the level of resistance it would meet and lacked intelligence about the activists on board.

Testifying about the May 31 raid before a government-appointed commission, chief of staff Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi provided the military's most detailed account yet of events aboard the lead ship in the flotilla, the Mavi Marmara, on which nine Turks were killed in clashes with naval commandos.

Ashkenazi said his troops were fired on first and responded "proportionately" and with restraint, shooting back when they were in mortal danger. According to army accounts, the activists attacked the Israeli troops with axes, knives, iron rods and guns, at least one of which was seized from a commando.

"We did not correctly estimate the intensity of the resistance," Ashkenazi said. "That was our mistake. It stemmed from the fact that we didn't know enough."

The inquiry commission, headed by retired Israeli Supreme Court justice Jacob Turkel, is looking into whether the raid and Israel's naval blockade of the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip conformed with international law. The panel heard testimony this week from Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

Ashkenazi testified that in training before the raid, in which six vessels were seized in international waters en route to Gaza, the military had prepared for the possibility of violent resistance, including gunfire. But he said it did not know enough about the Turkish charity group that organized the flotilla, the Humanitarian Relief Foundation, whose activists were aboard the Mavi Marmara and confronted the commandos.

"We didn't investigate it," Ashkenazi said. "It wasn't a priority like other organizations" such as Hamas, and "it is located in Turkey, which is not an enemy state."

During the raid, commandos carried paintball and salt-bullet guns used in riot control, but under the rules of engagement were allowed to use live ammunition when they thought their lives were in danger, Ashkenazi said.

According to Ashkenazi's account, stun grenades were thrown from a helicopter onto the deck of the Mavi Marmara before the first group of commandos rappelled onto the ship in pre-dawn darkness. When the first commando landed, he was beaten, and the second was shot in the stomach and fired his pistol back at his attacker. As more troops landed, they resorted to live ammunition when they were assaulted by activists, Ashkenazi said.

Asked by Turkel about Turkish autopsy reports showing that victims were shot at point blank range, Ashkenazi said that commandos fired when they were attacked at close quarters.

"When someone raises an axe and is about to strike, as far as I'm concerned, that's a mortal threat to a soldier, and that's what happened here," he said. "The soldiers did not err."

Ashkenazi said he had made a mistake in assuming that stun grenades hurled from a low-hovering helicopter would be enough to clear the deck. He said a better tactic would have been to post snipers to "neutralize" those disrupting the landing.

The commandos operated "coolly, courageously and morally," Ashkenazi said. "We accomplished the mission."

An Israeli military probe of the flotilla raid that was completed last month found intelligence flaws and errors of planning but justified the use of live fire. A U.N. inquiry launched this week is to review the findings of the Israeli commission and a Turkish investigation.

Joel Greenberg is a special correspondent.

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