BBC News | 11 August 2010 | 18:08 GMT
The head of Israel’s military has defended its troops’ use of live ammunition during a deadly raid on an aid flotilla sailing to Gaza in May. But Lt Gen Gabi Ashkenazi told an Israeli inquiry they underestimated the threat and should have used more force to subdue activists before boarding. Nine people were killed on board the Turkish ship, Mavi Marmara, as it tried to breach an Israeli naval blockade. Meanwhile, there is disagreement over a separate UN inquiry into the incident. Israel has agreed it will co-operate only if its soldiers do not have to give evidence to investigators, who have begun work in New York. However, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has denied making such a deal. There was widespread international criticism of Israel’s actions, which severely strained relations with its long-time Muslim ally, Turkey.
Testifying before the Turkel Commission in Jerusalem on Wednesday, Gen Ashkenazi said he took full responsibility for the army operation and was “proud” of the commandos who took part. He said they had not prepared to meet violent resistance on board the ships, and that live fire was used only after the troops were fired on by pro-Palestinian activists and attacked with knives, clubs and metal rods. But the general said “accurate weapons”, rather than stun grenades, should have been employed to incapacitate people on the deck of the ship before the commandos rappelled onto it. “We should have ensured sterile conditions in order to dispatch the forces in a minimum amount of time,” he said. “It would have lowered the risk to our soldiers but it would not have prevented the tension… Once the decision was made to stop the ship, the conflict was inevitable.”
Those on board the Mavi Marmara, where the activists were killed, say the commandos opened fire as soon as they boarded the vessel, which was in international waters at the time. The BBC’s Paul Wood in Jerusalem says Gen Ashkenazi’s remarks can be seen as part of the internal blame-game
being played out between Israel’s military and political leadership. His testimony follows that of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak, who suggested that the army – rather than the “political echelon” – was responsible for the way in which the raid had gone wrong. On Monday, Mr Netanyahu insisted Israel had acted legally and that every diplomatic effort had been exerted to have the ships turn back or dock elsewhere. He also accused the Turkish government of looking to gain from the high-profile confrontation. Turkey has denied the claim and described the raid as “tantamount to banditry and piracy” and the killings as “state-sponsored terrorism”.
The Turkel Commission, headed by retired Supreme Court judge Jacob Turkel and including two foreign observers, was set up by the Israeli government following the incident to consider whether international law was broken. But some critics say its remit is too narrow. Other investigations are expected to be more analytical and critical of Israeli policy in the Gaza Strip. Turkey has begun its own investigation. Last week, Mr Ban named the panel for a UN inquiry, which included representatives from Israel and Turkey. He has insisted there was no “agreement behind the scene” with Israel that its soldiers would not be questioned.
However, an Israeli spokesman, Nir Hefetz, said it “would not co-operate with any commission that would ask to question soldiers”, and could instead rely on reports published last month by an internal military inquiry. The inquiry found the commandos were under-prepared and that mistakes were made at a senior level. But it also praised those involved and found the use of force had been the only way to stop the flotilla. After criticism from its international allies over the flotilla incident, Israel eased its blockade of Gaza, allowing in more food and humanitarian goods. The blockade has been imposed on the coastal territory by Israel and Egypt since the Islamist militant group, Hamas, seized control in 2007. The Israelis say it is intended to stop militants from obtaining rockets to attack them. The restrictions have been widely described as a collective punishment of the population of Gaza.