During Israel's takeover of a Turkish ship in the Gaza-bound aid flotilla this week, some passengers tried to take captive three commandos who lost consciousness as a result of the activists' blows, according to early findings of a navy investigation. The three were dragged into one of the passenger halls below deck and were held there for several minutes.
After dozens of other commandos began searching the ship, the Mavi Marmara, the three soldiers regained consciousness and managed to join their comrades.
Conversations with senior navy officers in the chain of command during the operation present a different view of the events on Monday. In Israel, the raid has been perceived as a failure, while abroad it has been derided as piracy or worse.
The navy rejects the claims that it was poorly prepared. Officials have been commending the commandos' performance in a situation in which they were confronted by dozens of activists who attacked them as they rappelled from helicopters. "They were terrorists - hired killers who came to murder soldiers, not to assist the residents of the Gaza Strip," said a navy officer.
The operation on the Mavi Marmara began at about 4:30 A.M. on Monday. Because of the presence of hard-core activists including members of the IHH, the Turkish group organizing the aid convoy, most attention went to that ship. Navy chief Eliezer Merom and the head of the naval commandos, Lt. Col. A., were on vessels next to the ship. Lt. Col. A. climbed on the Mavi Marmara during the takeover.
As seen on a video documenting the takeover, the first four commandos to rappel onto the deck were attacked by activists with bars, axes and knives. The fourth commando, K., saw his team leader on the deck, with a Turkish activist holding the pistol he had grabbed from him and pointing it to his head. K. jumped from the rope and managed to shoot the activist holding the gun. This happened 20 seconds after the first soldier landed on the deck.
The commanders of the first unit were hit by the mob as they landed. One of the soldiers managed to fix another rope, after there were problems with the original one, for 10 more soldiers to land. The commandos cared for the wounded and took over part of the upper deck of the ship.
At this stage, six minutes into the operation, another force landed from a second helicopter, led by a major. At that point they realized that three commandos were missing and they began looking for them. A short while later the naval commando chief landed along with dozens more soldiers, some of whom climbed from boats. Others landed from a third helicopter.
The search involved limited shooting, in the bridge and on the lower deck, until the three men were recovered. The head of the naval commandos gave orders by radio to use live fire, two minutes after the incident had begun.
Shots had been fired earlier, but Lt. Col. A. later explained that in his orders he wanted to make sure that the troops realized that "the mood of the incident had changed."
The soldiers reported that the activists had fired on them during the confrontation and that at least two commandos suffered gunshot wounds. After the incident, 9mm bullet casings were found - a kind not used by the naval commandos.
The Israel Defense Forces says that during the operation a number of pistols and an M-4 rifle were taken from soldiers, but they believe that the Turkish activists had other weapons. The captain of the ship told the naval commando chief that the guns were thrown overboard before the ship was completely taken over.
The wounded activists were airlifted to Israel for treatment, some seriously hurt whose lives were saved by the evacuation.
The IDF did not question the activists extensively because of the decision to release them. In conversations after the takeover, activists said they were surprised by the use of helicopters, even though the navy had used this method before. However, nothing else appears to have surprised them because international law requires sufficient warnings before ships are boarded.
Post-operation assessments have the number of hard-core activists involved in the fighting at between 60 and 100. It appears that they were well trained and experienced, especially in view of the arsenal found and code books used to pass on orders from group leaders. Among the rioters, in addition to Turks, were Yemenis, Afghans and one person from Eritrea. All were apparently experienced in hand-to-hand fighting. Some of them did not retreat when shots were fired.
The operation involved a month of training, with dummy takeovers of a ship at sea with 50 soldiers performing the role of activists. The navy admits that it trained mostly for "a Bil'in type of opposition, but there was no feeling that this was going to be a walk in the park." He was referring to a village at the separation fence where demonstrations take place.
The navy says it needs to look into whether the psychological preparations of the force were sufficient, and whether it had emphasized an easier scenario that did not take place.
The navy says it went over "incidents and responses" in preparation; these included opening fire at charging activists with melee weapons. In case of a threat to their lives, the commandos were ordered to shoot to kill even as they were on their way onto the deck.
"The main gap between preparations and intelligence was that we did not know we would face dozens of rioters," a senior officer involved in the operation said. "This was not a disturbance that went awry. It was a planned ambush."
Another officer added that "I still wake up at 3 A.M. and wonder how the hell we did not know more."
Another officer said said that "we became a little spoiled, as a society, expecting perfect performances."
According to a senior officer, "Under the circumstances, and I do not like the result, I think we did the best we could. We took care of five ships without injuries. On the sixth ship, we faced a harsh attack and killed nine saboteurs.
"No real peace activist was injured. No soldier was killed, even though it came pretty close. In the end the ships are docked at Ashdod. It was very complicated and the result is near perfect."
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