Israel admits mistakes in boarding ship

Dan Williams, Reuters · Tuesday, Jun. 1, 2010

Wrong intelligence, wrong equipment, wrong tactics--Israel's military acknowledged big mistakes yesterday in the bungled boarding of an aid ship bound for Gaza in which elite troops killed nine international activists.

Though Israelis rallied to their conscripts in the face of foreign fury, the domestic recrimination -- "Foul-up" and "Fiasco" dominated newspaper headlines--betrayed an erosion of confidence recalling the setbacks of the 2006 Lebanon war.

One Israeli commentator called for the ouster of Ehud Barak, the Defence Minister. Cabinet members vowed to investigate, but their insistence the pro-Palestinian activists had provoked the bloodshed found a ready ear among irate Israelis.

Marine commandos involved in the attack pointed to a failure of intelligence.

"We did not expect such resistance from the group's activists as we were talking about a humanitarian aid group," the boarding party's commander, an unnamed naval lieutenant, who received special permission to be interviewed, told Army Radio.

"The outcome was different to what we thought, but I must say that this was mainly because of the inappropriate behaviour of the adversary we encountered."

Though Israel's police quarantine of activists from the Mavi Marmara prevented the airing of dissenting testimony, a video clip filmed by one of the passengers as the converted cruise ship was stormed showed two marines being clubbed and stabbed.

The Israeli military also released night-vision 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 ship seemed unfit for the melee -- outnumbered,

almost overpowered, though not 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."

For example, some of the troops wielded paintball rifles. The non-lethal weapons, designed to bruise, beat back and mark suspects for later arrest, 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," said Lieutenant-General Gabi Ashkenazi, Israel's armed forces chief.

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 threw him over a railing and two from gunshot wounds, possibly from sidearms that were wrested 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 defence official said only marines were capable of the takeover 120 kilo-metres in the choppy Mediterranean, timed for darkness to surprise the activists and deprive attendant journalists of spectacular pictures.

Matan Vilnai, Mr. Barak's deputy, brushed off the demand in the best-selling Yedioth Ahronoth daily that his boss resign. 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 movement that controls the 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," Mr. Vilnai told Israel Radio, alluding to rumours some of the vessels had been sabotaged.

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