IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi completed his first round of testimony yesterday to the Turkel Committee, the Israeli panel investigating the deadly May raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla.
Ashkenazi had the benefit of access to testimonies given by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak (except those delivered in closed-door testimony ), both of whom testified to the panel before him.
The primary difference between his and their testimonies lay in his tone. The chief of staff admitted mistakes, took responsibility for failings and directed only mild criticism toward the government his army answers to. (At least this was the case during the portion of testimony open to the public ).
The IDF chief was also gracious to his own subordinates. Mistakes made were "ours," he said, noting that "We erred."
"I take responsibility for every operation in the army," Ashkenazi said as the hearing began. "The decision to refrain as much as possible from summoning commanders [to testify] is the correct one. I represent them."
The flotilla raid, he added, was "proportionate and appropriate. The troops displayed calm, courage and dedication. I'm proud that these are my soldiers."
Unlike Barak during his testimony on Tuesday, Ashkenazi seemed to cautiously navigate the minefield between the military and political leaderships. Several times he described the army as acting in accordance with decisions made by the government. He also referred repeatedly to a letter he had sent to Netanyahu and Barak on May 13, two and a half weeks before the flotilla was due to set sail, asking that they exhaust other alternatives before making a decision to authorize a military operation.
Many saw Ashkenazi's remarks about the letter as a clear swipe at Netanyahu and Barak. That letter, however, can be found in a film screened last month for journalists by the Eiland Committee, the IDF's in-house inquiry into the raid. The film was replayed yesterday, with the letter quoted to members of the Turkel panel.
Ashkenazi told the commission yesterday that the primary lesson he had gleaned from the flotilla incident is the need to muster enough force in minimal time during any similar raid.
"Our fundamental problem, and mine as well, was exactly that," he said. "I estimated there would be 18 people on the upper deck, and that if we came with a helicopter and threw a stun grenade they would relent. We had to guarantee 'sterile' conditions for the unit."
Once forces came into contact with passengers, he said, "the navy commander made the right decision in taking over the bridge of the ship."
Ashkenazi said that if the IDF is faced with a similar situation in the future, there may be no alternative to deploying snipers to minimize troop casualties. "When people are looking for a fight, it usually happens," he said.
On the apparent faulty intelligence on the nature of the Mavi Marmara's mission, he said, "We need to know more."
Committee chairman Jacob Turkel expressed dismay at what he described as the absence of accurate intelligence on IHH, the Istanbul-based Islamist group that sent the flotilla.
"It seems a bit odd, in light of impressive prior achievements in preventing ships from arriving, and - according to foreign media reports - in thwarting weapons smuggling in places far from Israel," the retired Supreme Court justice said.
Ashkenazi replied, "It's true. I've already said we didn't know enough about the organization, that we hadn't investigated it enough. It wasn't on our list of priorities as were other groups... Turkey isn't an enemy country, and I hope it doesn't become one. We maintain military links with it, even during the current crisis. I myself was a guest of the Turkish chief of staff two weeks before the flotilla incident."
A picture of mistakes
The picture emerging from the testimonies offered to both the Turkel and Eiland committees is cause for concern. Not only does it appear that the political leadership was at fault, but the military command as well, in particular that of the navy. The incident will long be remembered as a resounding failure, even though the IDF had several months to prepare for the flotilla.
In the final analysis, military planning was ill-suited to the operation at hand, was based on faulty intelligence and was not flexible enough to allow troops to adequately confront the worst-possible scenario. As a result, when just such a scenario unfolded, soldiers were left alone to contain an angry, violent mob.
Just as in the first intifada of the late 1980s and early '90s, the Temple Mount riots of 1990 and 2000, and the October 2000 unrest across Israel and the territories, troops employed disproportionate force to get their comrades out alive.
The consequence, as is often seen in such cases, was the deaths of a number of people Israel had not planned to target, and untold damage to the country's image abroad.
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