Ashkenazi testifies before flotilla probe, now waits for Harpaz inquiry
In recent days, Israel Defense Force Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi has been caught in a vise. From one direction, he faces tension with the Turkel committee investigating the Israel Navy's confrontation with the Gaza-bound flotilla in May. From another direction, he must face the apparent prospect of an investigation by State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss into the alleged forgery of a document by Lt. Col. (res. ) Boaz Harpaz, purportedly designed to influence the selection of Ashkenazi's successor. The potential investigation comes against the backdrop of suggestions that those close to Ashkenazi had close ties with Harpaz. Defense Minister Ehud Barak sent Lindenstrauss a letter yesterday asking for an investigation. Sources close to Ashkenazi say he, too, supports an investigation.
Yesterday the chief of staff again testified before the Turkel inquiry, but he was not the witness from whom the panel had hoped to hear. They had sought testimony from the commander of the navy and the head of the intelligence corps, but Ashkenazi insisted that if there were questions to be asked of the military, he was the one to answer.
This is the second time that the two very different cases are coming together. In August, Ashkenazi testified before the Turkel committee and immediately afterwards met with the police and provided them with a copy that was in his possession of the so-called Harpaz document.
In his testimony yesterday, Ashkenazi revealed that in taking over the Mavi Marmara flotilla ship, Israeli navy seals fired 308 live bullets and about 350 paintballs and said the second Israeli who descended down the rope was hit by live weapons fire. Based on this, the IDF assumes ship passengers were in possession of guns that they later threw into the sea, noting that the first Israeli to descend did not have a gun, so the second commando could not have been hit by fire from a weapon stolen by passengers from the first commando.
Justice Turkel opened yesterday's session with a less-than-subtle hint that he hoped that later there would be a chance to take testimony from commanders "who were closer to the scene of the incident," in which nine passengers from the Mavi Marmara were killed. Sources close to the committee questioned if other IDF officers are sent warning letters in the future seeking their testimony, whether they would even conceive of not testifying.
The sources also noted that theoretically the committee could ask the government to expand its mandate so that it could summon other IDF officers, though yesterday senior army sources insisted Ashkenazi would be the only IDF officer to appear. At the center of the dispute is the question over whether Israel Navy Commander Adm. Eliezer Marom would be summoned to appear. Discussions on the issue are expected to continue.
The Turkel committee didn't make life easy for Ashkenazi. The chief of staff said the primary lesson to be derived from the flotilla incident was the need to "gather a maximum number of combat fighters in a minimum of time with less risk to our people." One member of the panel, Miguel Deutsch, directed his questioning of Ashkenazi to the central issue of whether it was right to lower soldiers onto the Mavi Marmara by rope from a helicopter in light of what was known in advance about the Turkish activists on the boat.
Ashkenazi replied somewhat impatiently, suggesting that "the questioner present another solution. I honestly say there is none. If we had had some gimmick that would have stopped the ship, we would have used it. We don't need to be encouraged to do that. We cooperate very closely with some of he Western armies and they too are unaware of such a gimmick."