By Batsheva Sobelman and Jeffrey Fleishman, Los Angeles Times
Reporting from Jerusalem and Cairo —
In the most gripping testimony yet before a commission investigating the deadly commando raid on a Gaza Strip-bound “humanitarian aid flotilla,” Israel’s chief of staff Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi said Wednesday, August 11, that the military mission was hurt by intelligence failures.
The third top Israeli official to testify this week, after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Ashkenazi provided what has been so far the most cohesive, vivid, and sequential account of the Israeli storming of the Gaza Flotilla on May 31. The assault killed nine activists, including a Turkish American.
The committee viewed video showing the unfolding events, including radio contacts warning the flotilla that it was sailing toward a naval blockade and a request that the Mavi Marmara, the Turkish ship on which the deadly clashes took place, change course or head for the Israeli port of Ashdod, where its humanitarian cargo would be inspected
Footage of the Israeli raid followed, depicting commandos’ early attempts to board from the side of the ship before troops rappelled down from a helicopter and were attacked by activists wielding knives and clubs.
The previous sessions had been somewhat sleepy, dealing with policy and the decision-making process, a matter of great, if not visually dramatic, domestic political concern. But Wednesday’s testimony was more visceral as the five Israeli panel members and two international observers became engrossed in the military and operational details of a mission condemned by human rights groups.
Ashkenazi answered questions candidly. Asked about nonlethal weapons, the chief of staff said soldiers were acquainted with the various options but that once in a life-threatening situation they opened live fire. He said they fired only in self-defense and until the bridge was under their control after a 50-minute battle in international waters.
“After the first soldier went down the rope there was no choice but to continue with the plan,” he said.
Ashkenazi, a long-serving career officer, praised the soldiers’ judgment “in keeping with IDF [Israel Defense Forces] values and the purity of arms.” Categorically, the activists had opened fire first, he said, and he rejected “with contempt” Turkish claims that victims were shot execution style, noting that skirmishes were conducted at close range. Ashkenazi also said the army’s choice of 9-millimeter caliber guns caused less damage than would have occurred with higher-velocity weapons.
Perhaps the most pointed question on Israelis’ minds was asked by Jacob Turkel, the commission chairman, who suggested that suspect intelligence caused the military to misread the provocative intentions of the leaders of those aboard the Mavi Marmara. The vessel is owned by a Turkish charity known as IHH and the flotilla was given at least tacit support by the Turkish government, which allowed it to sail out of Istanbul.
Ashkenazi agreed, saying Israel had limited knowledge of IHH, which it has outlawed for its support of the Palestinian militant group Hamas. The military’s “biggest mistake,” said Ashkenazi, was underestimating the level of resistance. The army believed stun grenades thrown from a helicopter over the heads of activists would be enough to clear the deck for 15 soldiers to fast-rope down within a minute and secure the bridge.
Ashkenazi, like Netanyahu and Barak, was careful not to publicly blame Turkey and further damage relations with what had been Israel’s closest Muslim ally before the raid. He instead focused on Israel’s actions and accountability.
“You can’t expect 100% intelligence…. We will never know everything,” the chief of staff said. He added that there will always be split-second decisions and that mistakes will be made. “And we must determine whether these mistakes are legitimate or not,” he said.