According to a report in Haaretz, the IDF Chief of Staff Gaby Ashkenazi testified Wednesday, at the Turkel Commission investigating the “maritime incident” which occurred when Israeli forces boarded the Mavi Marmara and five other ships sailing toward Gaza in a “Freedom Flotilla” on 31 May, that “the raid quickly became ‘chaotic’, and the soldiers had no choice but to ‘continue with the plan’ … 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”.
Ashkenazi is the third high-ranking Israeli official to take responsibility for the Flotilla fiasco. Earlier, Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu and Israel’s Defense Minister Ehud Barak also said the responsibility was theirs.
Haaretz also reported that “despite initial reports that military personnel would not testify before the Turkel committee, Ashkenazi has authorized Military Advocate General Brig. Gen. Avichai Mandelblit to testify before the panel. Ashkenazi also approved the questioning of General (Res.) Giora Eiland, who headed the IDF’s internal inquiry into the deadly raid”. This is reported in Haaretz here.
A Reuters account of Ashkenazi’s testimony reported that “The commission offers a closely-managed forum where Israeli leaders can argue their case. Its summary and that of a military probe are due to be sent to an independent investigation which opened at the United Nations in New York on Tuesday. The operation to stop the ship from reaching the Gaza Strip, under blockade by Israel and Egypt, depended for its success on getting as many commandos on deck as possible in the shortest time, Ashkenazi said. But that did not happen. Accurate, suppressing fire from alongside the ship would have cleared the deck of anyone ready to violently resist the boarding, the general said. This was ‘a lesson we have learned’. The first commandos were armed with paintball guns and holstered sidearms in anticipation of only light resistance. The second soldier down the rope was shot in the stomach, he said. Asked about Turkey’s claim that activists were shot dead from close range, Ashkenazi said much of the fighting happened in close quarters. He told how a soldier shot one Turkish man about to swing an axe at him. Ashkenazi also showed previously unpublished video of the raid which included images of three wounded Israeli commandos dragged to a lower deck and held by activists. Israeli leaders insist Israel was legally within its rights to stop a deliberately provocative bid to break its naval blockade of the Gaza Strip. The investigating panel has so far heard mostly pre-scripted statements. Cameras are turned off and reporters excluded for a closed-door question session that follows an initial open session … Israeli media have treated the inquiry with scepticism, focussing predominantly on what they see as buck-passing and finger-pointing in the top ranks of the leadership”. This Reuters report, vla the Jordan Times, can be read in full here.
There is also a report on [Lt. General] Ashkenazi’s testimony on the IDF spokespersons website, which says that “According to the Chief of the General Staff, the military investigations clarified that ‘our main mistake was that we were unable to create the conditions in order to have a maximum of force in a minimum of time. I believed that the 15 persons who were on the upper deck would move aside once we arrived in a helicopter at night and threw stun grenades. We should have used more precise weapons in order to neutralize the danger and create sterile conditions on the ship. We should have put soldiers on the sides of the boat with weapons appropriate for neutralizing those who prevented the soldiers on the helicopter from descending. It would have reduced the danger for our soldiers but it wouldn’t have avoided the confrontation, because they came looking for a confrontation with us’, he added”. The IDF spokespersons’ summary is posted here.
The IDF spokesperson’s website also reports that “Speaking at a graduation ceremony for the Naval Captain’s Course which was held Wednesday evening (Aug. 11) in the Haifa Naval base … [Ashkenazi] stressed that the Israel Naval Corps will serve as a maritime shield stopping flotillas intending to travel to the Gaza Strip in the coming months. ‘We find ourselves in times where the Mediterranean Sea and its shores are more agitated than usual and we are experiencing de-legitimization attempts by our enemies’, he said … [‘Thanks to the Naval Corps] we know that the next flotillas which will attempt to break our borders and the weapons ships which seek to arm terrorist organizations will be stopped by the maritime defensive shield of the State of Israel and its Navy’, Lt. Gen. Ashkenazi said”. This can be viewed in full here.
Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s testimony earlier in the week [but not the Q+A in closed session] is posted on the Israeli MFA website here.
A critique of Netanyahu’s testimony was published today by the blog of the Israeli human rights organization GISHA, which has led efforts to stop Israel’s military-administered sanctions against the Gaza Strip since they went into effect in October 2007.
GISHA wrote that “Even seasoned pundits could not help but express dismay this week at the televised testimony by senior Israeli officials, beginning with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, before the Turkel Commission charged with investigating the Israeli military’s May 31 interception of ships bound for Gaza. As the Israeli daily Haaretz pointed out in a scathing editorial, Netanyahu readily acknowledged that Israel’s decisions on what to allow or prohibit into Gaza were based not on concern for the welfare of the population in Gaza but rather about Israel’s image in the international media … If the limitations really were, as Netanyahu claimed, necessary ‘to prevent the entry of weapons and war materiel into Gaza’, easing them just in order to improve Israel’s public relations would seem grossly irresponsible. If they weren’t necessary for security – why were they imposed in the first place?”
The GISHA post added that “We also found puzzling Netanyahu’s claim that ‘Israel increased the number of trucks entering Gaza by approximately 30 percent over the five months preceding the flotilla incident’. According to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in the first five months of 2010, Israel actually decreased the volume of trucks permitted into Gaza by 9 percent, relative to 2009 (see the first and last pages of the MFA report, which show that the monthly average of trucks allowed into Gaza in 2009 was 2,576, compared with just 2,329 in the first five months of 2010). The real change in the volume of trucks permitted into Gaza came only after [emphasis added] the flotilla incident, when Israel was pressed to justify its policy blocking the movement of people and goods into and out of Gaza: Last week, Israel allowed Gaza residents to receive 1,126 truckloads of goods, approximately 45 percent of need, as compared to about 25 percent of need prior to the flotilla incident. Export and the movement of people, critical for economic recovery and normal life in Gaza, are still blocked. Perhaps these restrictions do not constitute a sufficiently heavy ‘diplomatic and public relations burden’?” This GISHA comment is posted here.
Meanwhile, Turkey has reportedly announced that it will conduct its own inquiry into the Flotilla fiasco, which will “investigate the attack and the treatment the activists faced”. Eight Turkish men and one American high school student of Turkish origin were killed in the Israeli Naval raid on the Mavi Marmara, a large passenger ship leased by the Turkish humanitarian relief organization IHH and carrying over 600 people on board when it was intercepted by Israeli Navy missile boats at sea in the eastern Mediterranean on 31 May. Haaretz reported that “Turkey’s commission will include officials from the foreign, justice, interior and transport ministries as well as from the country’s maritime agency … Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said on Tuesday that Israel should admit sole responsibility for the deaths aboard the Mavi Marmara. ‘No one else can take the blame for killing civilians in international waters’, Davutoglu told journalists. ‘Israel has killed civilians, and should take the responsibility for having done so’.” This is reported here.
The Jerusalem Post reports that the Turkish Foreign Minister told AFP that “The panel is expected to operate under the prime minister’s office and publicize a written report on the investigation, the foreign ministry said in a statement. The international panel established by the United Nations earlier in August, which is also leading its own investigation into the raid, will be presented with the results of the Turkish commission … The statement did not include a planned date as to when the commission will present its findings. According to press reports, Turkish prosecutors initiated an investigation against top Israeli officials in June, which will potentially lead to the pressing of various charges, such as murder, injury, attacking Turkish citizens while in international waters and piracy”. The JPost report is posted here.