Paintballs to pistols, Israel admits ship blunders
By Dan Williams
JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Wrong intelligence, wrong guns, wrong tactics. Israel’s military acknowledged big mistakes on Tuesday during the bungled boarding of a Gaza-bound aid ship in which elite troops killed nine international activists.
Though Israelis rallied to their conscripts in the face of foreign fury, the domestic recrimination — with "Foul-up" and "Fiasco" dominating newspaper headlines — betrayed an erosion of confidence recalling the setbacks of the 2006 Lebanon war.
One commentator demanded that Defense Minister Ehud Barak step down. Cabinet members vowed to investigate, but their insistence that the pro-Palestinian activists had provoked the bloodshed found a ready ear among an irate Israeli public.
The secretive Flotilla 13 marine commando unit was brought out of the shadows to try to explain the operation’s failings.
"We did not expect such resistance from the group’s activists as we were talking about a humanitarian aid group," one unnamed naval lieutenant told Israel’s Army Radio.
"The outcome was different to what we thought, but I must say that this was mainly because of the inappropriate behavior of the adversary we encountered."
Israel’s police quarantine of activists from the Mavi Marmara prevented airing of dissenting testimony. The navy also jammed communications while storming the converted cruise ship.
That did not stop passengers broadcasting a globally viewed video clip that, ironically, helped Israel’s case by showing a clutch of activists clubbing and stabbing two marines.
Israel released its own night-vision mission footage of a half-dozen commandos grappling with as many as 30 activists.
The images stirred undercurrents of disbelief and disgrace in Israel. Fabled for their silent exploits at sea, the fighters who rappelled onto the Mavi Marmara looked unfit for the melee — outnumbered, almost overpowered, though far from outgunned.
Jason Alderwick, a maritime warfare expert at London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies, faulted the marines for not commandeering the vessel more efficiently.
"Success begins with planning and with decent intelligence, and they have boarded such ships before," he said. "This time they didn’t go in hard enough, fast enough and in sufficient numbers to establish overwhelming control."
OVER THE TOP
Some of the troops wielded paintball rifles — non-lethal weapons designed to bruise, beat back and mark suspects for later arrest, but which apparently proved of limited use against activists who had the protection of life-jackets and gas masks.
"It’s clear that the equipment for crowd-dispersal with which they were issued was insufficient," Israel’s armed forces chief, Lieutenant-General Gabi Ashkenazi, told reporters.
There was little question of calling off the raid once the first Israelis were in the fight and vulnerable, though the navy said some commandos opted to escape by jumping overboard.
Israel said seven marines were injured, one after activists pitched him over a railing and two with gunshot wounds, possibly from backup pistols that were wrested away from them.
"A number of the fighters who understood the situation, the threat posed to their lives, reoriented themselves and simply worked with live (ammunition) weapons as soon as they came down," the marines lieutenant said.
Some experts questioned whether a police anti-riot unit might have tackled the resistance with less bloodshed.
But an Israeli Defense official said only marines were capable of the takeover 120 km (75 miles) in the choppy Mediterranean, timed for darkness to surprise the activists and deprive attendant journalists of spectacular pictures.
Barak’s deputy, Matan Vilnai, brushed off the call in the best-selling Yedioth Ahronoth daily for the Defense minister’s resignation. He hinted Israel had exhausted covert means of stalling the Mavi Marmara and five other vessels in a flotilla that sailed for Gaza in defiance of an Israeli campaign to isolate the Hamas Islamists who rule the Palestinian territory.
"Everything was considered. I don’t want to elaborate beyond that, because the fact is there were not up to 10, or however many ships were (originally) planned," Vilnai told Israel Radio, alluding to rumors that some of the vessels had been sabotaged.
Alon Ben-David, Defense analyst for Israel’s Channel 10 television, noted that video footage appears to show marines thwarted an attempt by activists to tie one of the rappelling ropes to the deck, a major threat to the hovering helicopter.
"The outcome could have been much worse," Ben-David said.
(Additional reporting by William Maclean in London; Editing by Paul Taylor)