Israel Defense Forces troops were not ready for the violent resistance they met when they boarded a Gaza-bound aid ship and killed nine pro-Palestinian activists, IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi said on Wednesday.
The raid quickly became "chaotic," Ashkenazi said, testifying before an internal probe into Israel's deadly raid, and defending the military from politicians' accusations it botched the operation. "After the first soldier went down the rope there was no choice but to continue with the plan."
Ashkenazi told the inquiry, headed by former chief justice Jacob Turkel, that the outcome of the May 31 raid was impossible to predict.
"From the moment the operation began, it was clear that the circumstances were unprecedented," he said, adding that as commander he took full responsibility for the troops' actions.
"The commandos exhibited calm, bravery and morality," Ashkenazi told the inquiry panel. Their actions were "proportionate and correct", he said.
During his evidence Ashkenazi showed the panel a film prepared by the IDF, which included footage of a letter he sent to politicians before the raid asking them to take all possible action to avoid confrontation.
The IDF chief, who is set to step down in February at the end of a four-year term that has seen him increasingly at odds with Defense Minister Ehud Barak, repeated the army's version of the raid, saying commandos used live ammunition only after they were attacked.
In testimony on Tuesday, Barak heaped blame on the IDF, telling the inquiry that the failure of the operation did not stem from the decision to carry it out but from its planning and implementation by the military.
On Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also implied that the IDF, and not politicians, had been responsible for the controversial interception, which drew international condemnation and prompted the United Nations to set up its own inquiry.
In cross-examining Ashkenazi, Turkel asked how it was possible that Israeli intelligence organizations had failed to gain advanced warning of the presence of violent activists from the Turkish Islamist group IHH aboard the ships.
"It seems a little strange, given previous successes in preventing boats reaching Gaza," Turkel said. "In these situations there were apparently intelligences sources and means of attaining extremely accurate information."
Ashkenazi responded: "It's true, I have already said that we didn't know enough about the [IHH] organization, and we didn't investigate it. It was not on our list of priorities like other groups."
He added: "Turkey is not an enemy state and I hope it never will be. We have military contacts, even despite the current crisis," referring to the near-collapse of Israel's diplomatic ties with Ankara following the raid.
Ashkenazi said that the main lesson of the operation, which saw commandos heavily outnumbered as they were lowered one by one onto the deck, was the need to find a way to deploy troops more quickly.
In future, the IDF would have no option but to use snipers to cover soldiers as they boarded, he said.
"If the IDF has to deal with a similar scenario in future, there will be no option but to employ snipers to protect the lives of troops," he said.
Israel imposed its blockade on Gaza after Hamas militants seized power in the coastal strip in 2007, claiming that the measures are necessary to halt the entrance of rockets and other weaponry that has been used against its southern communities.
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