Paintballs to pistols, Israel admits ship blunders


Wrong intelligence, wrong guns, wrong tactics. Israel’s military – preparing to intercept another Gaza-bound ship – has acknowledged big mistakes during the bungled boarding of a Gaza-bound aid ship in which elite troops killed nine international activists.

Though Israelis rallied to their conscripts in the face of foreign fury, the domestic recrimination — with “Foul-up” and “Fiasco” dominating newspaper headlines — betrayed an erosion of confidence recalling the setbacks of the 2006 Lebanon war. One commentator demanded that Defense Minister Ehud Barak step down. Cabinet members vowed to investigate, but their insistence that the pro-Palestinian activists had provoked the bloodshed found a ready ear among an irate Israeli public.

The secretive Flotilla 13 marine commando unit was brought out of the shadows to try to explain the operation’s failings. “We did not expect such resistance from the group’s activists as we were talking about a humanitarian aid group,” one unnamed naval lieutenant told Israel’s Army Radio.
“The outcome was different to what we thought, but I must say that this was mainly because of the inappropriate behaviour of the adversary we encountered.”

Israel’s police quarantine of activists from the Mavi Marmara prevented airing of dissenting testimony. The navy also jammed communications while storming the converted cruise ship. That did not stop passengers broadcasting a globally viewed video clip that, ironically, helped Israel’s case by showing a clutch of activists clubbing and stabbing two marines. Israel released its own night-vision mission footage of a half-dozen commandos grappling with as many as 30 activists.

The images stirred undercurrents of disbelief and disgrace in Israel. Fabled for their silent exploits at sea, the fighters who rappelled onto the Mavi Marmara looked unfit for the melee — outnumbered, almost overpowered, though far from outgunned.

Jason Alderwick, a maritime warfare expert at London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies, faulted the marines for not commandeering the vessel more efficiently. “Success begins with planning and with decent intelligence, and they have boarded such ships before,” he said. “This time they didn’t go in hard enough, fast enough and in sufficient numbers to establish overwhelming control.”

Some of the troops wielded paintball rifles — non-lethal weapons designed to bruise, beat back and mark suspects for later arrest, but which apparently proved of limited use against activists who had the protection of life-jackets and gas masks. “It’s clear that the equipment for crowd-dispersal with which they were issued was insufficient,” Israel’s armed forces chief, Lieutenant-General Gabi Ashkenazi, told reporters.

There was little question of calling off the raid once the first Israelis were in the fight and vulnerable, though the navy said some commandos opted to escape by jumping overboard. Israel said seven marines were injured, one after activists pitched him over a railing and two with gunshot wounds, possibly from backup pistols that were wrested away from them. “A number of the fighters who understood the situation, the threat posed to their lives, reoriented themselves and simply worked with live (ammunition) weapons as soon as they came down,” the marines lieutenant said.

Some experts questioned whether a police anti-riot unit might have tackled the resistance with less bloodshed. But an Israeli Defense official said only marines were capable of the takeover 120 km in the choppy Mediterranean, timed for darkness to surprise the activists and deprive attendant journalists of spectacular pictures.

Barak’s deputy, Matan Vilnai, brushed off the call in the best-selling Yedioth Ahronoth daily for the Defense minister’s resignation. He hinted Israel had exhausted covert means of stalling the Mavi Marmara and five other vessels in a flotilla that sailed for Gaza in defiance of an Israeli campaign to isolate the Hamas Islamists who rule the Palestinian territory. “Everything was considered. I don’t want to elaborate beyond that, because the fact is there were not up to 10, or however many ships were (originally) planned,” Vilnai told Israel Radio, alluding to rumors that some of the vessels had been sabotaged.

Alon Ben-David, Defense analyst for Israel’s Channel 10 television, noted that video footage appears to show marines thwarted an attempt by activists to tie one of the rappelling ropes to the deck, a major threat to the hovering helicopter. “The outcome could have been much worse,” Ben-David said.

Round Two

Meanwhile, activists in Nicosia, Cyprus, are vowing on Tuesday to try to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza with another ship, while the marine officer pledged to halt it, setting the stage for a fresh confrontation after Monday’s deadly clash.

The MV Rachel Corrie, a converted merchant ship bought by pro-Palestinian activists and named after an American woman killed in the Gaza Strip in 2003, set off on Monday from Malta, organizers said. It was carrying 15 activists including a northern Irish Nobel Peace laureate. “We are an initiative to break Israel’s blockade of 1.5 million people in Gaza. Our mission has not changed and this is not going to be the last flotilla,” Free Gaza Movement activist Greta Berlin, based in Cyprus, told Reuters.

The Israeli marine lieutenant says his unit is prepared to block the ship. “We as a unit are studying, and we will carry out professional investigations to reach conclusions,” the lieutenant said, referring to Monday’s confrontation in which his unit shot nine activists aboard a Turkish ferry. “And we will also be ready for the Rachel Corrie,” he added.

Army Radio reported that the ship would reach Gazan waters by today, but Berlin said it might not attempt to reach Gaza until early next week. “We will probably not send her till (next) Monday or Tuesday,” she said of the 1200 tonne cargo ship. The Israeli navy stormed aboard a Turkish ferry leading a six-ship convoy on Monday, killing nine people in what authorities said was self-defence but sparking a world outcry, a crisis in diplomatic relations with Turkey and condemnation from the United Nations Security Council. The Rachel Corrie was carrying medical equipment, wheelchairs, school supplies and cement, a material Israel has banned in Hamas-ruled Gaza, organisers said.

Passengers include Northern Irish Nobel peace laureate Mairead Corrigan-Maguire and Denis Halliday, an Irish former senior UN diplomat. Mark Daly, a member of Ireland’s upper house of parliament who had been due to join the convoy but was refused permission to leave Cyprus, told Reuters in Dublin that the ship had fallen behind the rest of the convoy because it was slower.

Passengers aboard it had heard about the attacks but decided not to turn back, he said.
“After having a discussion among themselves about what to do, they decided to keep going and the last contact … was at 6 o’clock yesterday evening,” Daly said.