Gabi Ashkenazi
IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi Photo by Moran Maayan
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Israel Defense Forces chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi was not present in the IDF's Tel Aviv command center during the first part of the maritime takeover of the Gaza-bound Turkish ship Mavi Marmara on May 31, Haaretz learned Sunday.

Instead, the most senior officer supervising the raid was Major General Tal Russo, IDF Chief of Operations, with Ashkenazi arriving only after the takeover had taken a turn for the worse.

The absence of both Ashkenazi and his second in command, Major General Benny Ganz, will be one of the issues to be reviewed by the specialist panel named by the IDF chief to probe the raid, headed by retired major general Giora Eiland.

Eiland, who, among other roles, also served at one time as the joint chief's head of operations, was among those severely criticizing the lack of senior command presence in the IDF headquarters during the Second Lebanon War, adding that the IDF's top brass did not follow due command protocol at the time.

Until the Gaza flotilla incident, Ashkenazi was known as a staunch observer of the orderly following of command and control protocol, and attended every operational event that required his presence.

The IDF chief was reportedly involved in some of the meetings held in preparation of the operation, also known as "Operation Sky Winds 7," including those held in the Defense Minister's chambers, but did not attend all of them, with Ganz filling in on some of the occasions.

The officer who commanded the flotilla raid from its onset was Israel Navy chief, Admiral Eliezer Marom, whose command formulated the plans and was the person presenting them, in most cases, to government officials.

Maron was situated in a small special-forces naval vassal alongside the Mavi Marmara as the takeover was taking place, in accordance with Israel Navy protocol, which stipulates that the top officer present should have a line of sight, as much as possible, to the event itself.

Radio recordings of the operation document Marom giving out specific technical orders to the special-forces team during the flotilla takeover. Second in command, Rani Ben-Yehuda, was the top navy representative in the IDF's Tel Aviv headquarters. Some have criticized Marom, saying he should have stayed further back, while the navy chief insists that his presence was critical.

The absence of both Ashkenazi and Ganz from the command center as the raid began prevented those present from immediately relying on their experience as the fast-paced events unfolded.

In addition, a reported imbalance was created between Marom, the top commander in the field, and the officers at the Tel Aviv command center. It is argued that Russo, being the less senior officer, could not have served as an adequate counterpoint to the veteran and assertive navy chief.

The IDF's Spokesman's Office told Haaretz in response that the chief of staff's bureau chief was present at the navy command center during the takeover and updated the IDF chief as events unfolded, as is customary. The spokesman added that Ashkenazi arrived at the command center as soon as the takeover had taken a violent turn, and began overseeing the operation, including the evacuation of those wounded.

The IDF chief's absence in the first part of the raid indicates to a degree the state of mind prevalent among the top army brass, as senior officers did not think it likely that the navy commando force would encounter any significant resistance.

In the last week several reports indicated that there had been a similar attitude taken by many government officials.

One such example would be that then acting prime minister Moshe Ya'alon, who had been put in charge as a result of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's absence due to an official Canada visit, had not been updated by the defense establishment in real time, and only found out that the raid had commenced in retrospect. (Ya'alon's office insists that this was the case, while the Prime Minister's Office claims that the deputy prime minister was updated with the relevant details on time by the defense minister's office.