October 24, 2010 (KATAKAMI / HAARETZ) — Ashkenazi testifies before Turkel Commission, defends IDF decision to rappel commandos onto deck of Gaza-bound Turkish aid ship where 9 activists were killed.
Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi once again on Sunday defended Israel’s decision to rappel Israeli commandos onto the deck of a Gaza-bound aid ship on May 31, where ensuing clashes resulted in the deaths of nine Turkish activists.
Testifying before an investigations committee probing the deadly events, Ashkenazi said that Israeli commandos had fired 308 live bullets aboard the ship to repel passengers who attacked them with lethal weapons, including a snatched Uzi machine pistol.
In a sometimes testy second round of testimony before the state-appointed inquest, the Lieutenant-General insisted the navy’s killing of nine Turks on the converted cruise ship Mavi Marmara had been unavoidable.
The Mavi Marmara was one of several boats, laden with supplies, aiming to violate Israel’s blockade on the Gaza Strip. Israel informed the organizers of the flotilla that the ships would not be allowed to reach the Gaza shores, and soldiers boarded all the ships to compel them to change course.
Ashkenazi told the six-member Turkel Commission on Sunday that navy commandos who boarded the Mavi Marmara were equipped with riot-dispersal gear, but quickly switched to live fire to confront armed passengers because “if they had not done this, there would have been more casualties.”
Ankara, which wants compensation and an apology from Israel, has dismissed the Turkel panel as too lacking in scope.
The probe commission has solicited testimony from Mavi Marmara passengers – many of whom insist the commandos’ onslaught was unprovoked – and signaled it may probe Israel’s navy deeper.
Ashkenazi said 308 live rounds were fired by the troops. A top aide to the general told Reuters 70 of these were aimed to cause injury, while the rest were warning shots.
That appeared consistent with Turkish forensic findings that the nine dead activists were shot a total of 30 times, and there were gunshot wounds among another 24 passengers who were hurt.
“Those who are asking questions [about tactics] should propose an alternative solution,” Ashkenazi said.
Ashkenazi said passengers grabbed three Glock handguns and an Uzi machine pistol from commandos whom they overpowered. The troops had been dropped from helicopters onto the crowded ship as it ploughed through Mediterranean high seas at night.
“We have testimony of one activist running at them [commandos] and firing with a mini-Uzi, and them shooting him,” he said. “They hit those who were clearly involved in the attack on them, and not those who were not.”
Mavi Marmara activists have said any guns taken from the troops were disposed of, rather than used.
Ashkenazi said commandos had fired some 350 beanbag rounds and non-lethal paintballs, all according to “protocol.” The navy opted against rubber bullets – a mainstay of Israel’s tactics against Palestinian demonstrations on land – because of a lethal risk within the Mavi Marmara’s confines, Ahkenazi added.
Ashkenazi, who is scheduled to retire early next year, made clear that he had returned to testify in order to spare scrutiny from subordinates, including the admiral in charge of the navy.
Bristling at Turkish and other foreign fury over the Mavi Marmara raid yet wary of international war crimes suits, Israel set up the Turkel Commission to help prepare its submission for a separate probe under United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
Ashkenazi, a career infantryman, said the commission had received “word for word” accounts from marines, including two who were shot and wounded upon boarding.
Commission members asked Ashkenazi if lowering soldiers into a crowd on the ship’s deck was wise. He said there was no better way to stop the ship. “If we had a special trick to stop the flotilla, we would have used it. We maintain intimate cooperation with other armies, and we haven’t heard of another solution.”
Endorsing the commandos’ recollection, Ashkenazi said they were combat veterans who “know when they are being shot at.”
But he also seemed to make allowances for the haze of melee.
“I won’t take issue with a soldier who might confuse a slingshot, and the whizz its missile makes as it flies past, with a pistol, during night-time,” he said.