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Questions abound over planning of sea op
By YAAKOV KATZ
01/06/2010
Did IDF exhaust its options before deciding to send Flotilla 13, inexpert at crowd dispersion.
 
While the IDF succeeded in stopping the international aid flotilla early Monday morning from reaching the Gaza Strip, the real test is still ahead – whether the unfortunate outcome of at least 10 dead activists will create deterrence and prevent other ships from trying to break the blockade in the future.

Until the next flotilla, though, the IDF will have its hands full first and foremost in probing the operation, which several senior officials said Monday was a failure, and, second, in minimizing the fallout.

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The damage this operation has caused the IDF and Israel cannot be underestimated. Facing already tense ties with Turkey, the deaths of at least 10 activists will lead to a further deterioration in ties. Greece has joined the criticism and canceled an ongoing joint air force exercise with Israel that was supposed to continue until Thursday.

“This is just the beginning,” said one top defense official involved in diplomatic talks, “This makes everything much more complicated.”

Israel’s concerns are now focused on the Palestinian Authority and Israeli Arabs. Defense Minister Ehud Barak shared this concern on Monday during a press conference in Tel Aviv when he called on the Palestinian and Arab leaderships to demonstrate restraint. Barak went so far as to call on the Palestinians to continue holding proximity talks with Israel and, in the near future, to move into direct negotiations. It will be interesting to see the effect the operation will have on those peace talks.

Either way, the IDF will have to undergo a thorough inquiry to understand how what was supposed to be a simple takeover of a ship at sea – something that the navy is supposed to know how to do with its eyes closed – resulted in 10 deaths, 50 wounded and possibly irreparable damage for Israel.

First, it is important to stress that at the tactical level, the soldiers who boarded the ship were not at fault. As IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi himself said Monday, “the soldiers acted, as we expected, with resolve and sensitivity. Only at the moment their lives were in danger did they open fire.”

Ashkenazi’s description is backed up by the videos that were released by the IDF as well as those broadcast on Al Jazeera, which clearly show a mob of activists on the ship attacking the soldiers with bats, metal pipes and knives. The soldiers only opened fire after they were shot at and several soldiers had been stabbed and were seriously wounded.

Instead, the questions need to be turned toward the top military-political level. One question that needs to be asked is why the government approved the IDF’s plan to put troops on the ship via helicopter instead of perhaps sabotaging or diverting them. Flotilla 13, the naval commando unit that raided the ships, is expert in sabotage.

According to one former top navy officer, one option was to use tugboats to push the ships off course. Another option was to damage the ships’ propellers, prevent them from sailing into Gaza and forcing them to be towed to Ashdod.

A third option was to board the ships quietly and not by helicopter.

“There were several options that the IDF had before sending troops onto the ship,” the former senior officer explained, “It is not clear that those options were completely exhausted.”

The IDF also appears to have lacked adequate intelligence regarding the so-called ambush that was waiting for the troops on the ship. If the military had known that dozens of activists would be waiting with knives, bats and metal pipes, it might have acted differently. One top officer admitted Monday that the resistance the soldiers encountered was not what they had prepared for.

One question that will need to be answered is why Flotilla 13 was sent aboard the ship that turned most violent. While the commandos are without question some of Israel’s most elite soldiers, they are not experts in crowd dispersion like the Border Police’s Yamam counter-terror unit is.

One top defense official criticized the IDF’s decision to send the naval commandos aboard the ships. Apparently, the IDF considered using Yamam but decided against it.

This is not the first time that such a decision was made and turned out to be wrong. In 1994, the Golani Brigade’s Sgt. Nachshon Wachsman was kidnapped by Hamas. The IDF uncovered his location and decided to send the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit (Sayeret Matkal) to rescue him instead of Yamam.

After the failed rescue attempt, the IDF and Police decided that Yamam would be in charge of hostage situations.

These questions and others will preoccupy the army for the next few weeks.

The IDF will now come under criticism as well as increased calls to establish a commission of inquiry. Judging by the way the government responded to similar calls after Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip last winter, this time, too, Barak and Ashkenazi will reject such calls and claim that the IDF can probe itself independently.
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