Israel army chief says military underestimated threat of violence in Turkish flotilla raid

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Israel army chief testifies before flotilla panel

JERUSALEM — Israeli military forces underestimated the threat on a Gaza-bound ship in May and did not know enough about the Turkish activists that confronted the commandos boarding the vessel, Israel’s military chief said Wednesday.

Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi said the military should have used more force to subdue pro-Palestinian activists before soldiers boarded the vessel.

Ashkenazi told an official Israeli inquiry into the raid that commandos used stun grenades to clear the area before rappelling from helicopters onto the ship, which was trying to break Israel’s blockade of Gaza.

Activists beat the troops with clubs and metal rods, stabbed them with knives and even fired shots. With their lives in danger, the soldiers responded with gunfire and killed nine Turkish activists, Ashkenazi said.

“We should have ensured sterile conditions in order to dispatch the forces in a minimum amount of time,” Ashkenazi testified. “It would have lowered the risk to our soldiers but it would not have prevented the tension … once the decision was made to stop the ship, the conflict was inevitable.”

The bloodshed drew widespread international criticism and has pushed Israel to loosen its restrictions on Gaza.

Israel, along with Egypt, imposed the embargo after the violent Hamas movement took control of Gaza in 2007, and a tight naval blockade, which Israel says is needed to prevent arms from reaching Hamas, remains in place.

During his three-hour-long testimony, Ashkenazi said the decision to stop the ship was correct and the imperfect execution was partly due to the military not knowing enough about the IHH — the Turkish Islamic charity that sponsored the flotilla. Israel has outlawed the group because of its ties to Hamas.

He said the Turkish activists on board opened fire first, and that Israeli troops responded appropriately.

Ashkenazi’s testimony followed that of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

The Israeli commission is headed by a retired Supreme Court justice and includes two foreign observers: David Trimble, a Nobel peace laureate from Northern Ireland, and Brig. Gen. Ken Watkin, Canada’s former chief military prosecutor.

Although the panel does not have the authority to punish Israeli leaders, its findings could be politically damaging.

Israel’s military has already wrapped up its own investigation, and the United Nations launched another probe of its own on Tuesday.

In a related developing, the Israeli military on Wednesday released video footage showing an Arab lawmaker walking among men armed with knives and clubs aboard the ship before the soldiers arrived. Hanin Zoabi has previously claimed she never saw any weapons aboard the vessel.

Zoabi angered many Israelis by joining the flotilla and was later branded a “traitor” by some fellow parliamentarians, who voted to revoke some of her government privileges.

Zoabi maintained her innocence to Israel Radio on Wednesday. “The tape doesn’t mean anything, its a minute out of an hour and a half of hostilities,” she said. “I didn’t see armed people, I didn’t see people with clubs, I didn’t see people with knives.”

Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin told the station that the Justice Ministry should view the footage and decide whether to open an investigation.

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