Why didn't the IDF know more about the passengers?

June 4, 2010 22:09
IDF footage from the Monday raid.

gaza flotilla raid 311. (photo credit: IDF)

In January 2002, Vice-Admiral Eliezer “Chiney” Marom was head of Naval Operations and commanded Operation Noah’s Ark, the seizure of the Karine A Iranian arms ship as it made its way in the Red Sea, loaded with advanced weaponry, to Palestinian terrorists in the Gaza Strip.

Marom was in charge of the operation from a command post inside a transport aircraft which flew directly above the ship. He watched the live feed as naval commandos rappelled down from helicopters onto the small vessel, which they commandeered without firing a shot.

This week, eight years after that brilliant operation, Marom again commanded a complex takeover of a ship at sea, although it did not end like the Karine A.

This time, instead of praise, Marom came under fierce criticism after commandos from Flotilla 13 – known as the Shayetet – rappelled down from helicopters to a ship trying to breaking the sea blockade of the Gaza Strip, but they did not disembark without firing a single shot. This time, they killed nine passengers aboard the Turkish Mavi Marmara who violently attacked them.

There are similarities between the two operations. Both took place deep at sea and far from Israel. In both cases, Shayetet commandos – who rank among the IDF’s most elite soldiers – rappelled down on to the vessels to take them over. But this is where the similarities end.

In 2002, after the Karine A’s cargo of missiles, guns and ammunition was unloaded and laid out at the Eilat Port for the media, then defense minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer called out to Marom to introduce him to the media. This time around, Defense Minister Ehud Barak was not taking Marom for a stroll with journalists.

On Sunday night, Marom was also not on a plane but was at sea, on a small, fast navy boat that sailed alongside the Mavi Marmara.

As in 2002, Marom was again in command of the operation. This is unusual in the IDF. Usually, an operation of this size falls under the jurisdiction of the unit commander, or maybe a higher-ranking officer, but not the head of the navy. Marom decided to place himself in charge since he realized that when dealing with a flotilla of six ships carrying hundreds of activists from around the world, a tactical glitch could create larger strategic problems, as it did.

THERE ARE two ways of looking at what happened early Monday morning on the Mavi Marmara’s upper deck.

One way, as portrayed extensively in the media, was that the operation – dubbed “Sea Breeze” by the IDF – was a failure.

There was a clear intelligence gap – the navy did not know that passengers were preparing an ambush for the commandos and were equipped with night-vision goggles, bulletproof vests, stun grenades, knives, axes and metal pipes. The nine dead passengers turned what was expected to be a complicated but not deadly operation into a diplomatic crisis for the State of Israel, forcing Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to return from Canada prematurely and cancel a planned meeting with US President Barack Obama.

The operation’s unfortunate results left many questions. The first had to do with the way the operation was approved by Netanyahu and Barak who apparently skipped over the cabinet. Other questions focused on whether it was necessary to board the ship by helicopter and whether the Shayetet was the most suitable unit to participate in an operation that had civil disturbance characteristics. Some former police inspectors-general claimed it could have been carried out more effectively by Yamam, the police’s elite counterterror unit.

Former senior navy officers were also quietly telling reporters that the navy had other options. One claimed that it was possible to sabotage the ship’s propeller or that the commandos could have boarded by sea.

To his credit, Marom considered all of the different options and held a number of brainstorming sessions throughout the navy and IDF Operations Directorate to come up with a way to stop the boats. He also personally joined the diplomatic efforts spearheaded by the Foreign Ministry. Marom met with the Turkish and Greek military attaches here and sent letters to his Greek and Turkish counterparts urging them to take action to stop the flotilla. His requests were denied.

On the operational side, sabotaging the ship was deemed almost impossible considering the conditions at sea and its size. There was also the risk that extensive damage caused by sabotage could cause it to sink. Boarding the ship by sea was also extremely complicated since the Mavi Marmara had three decks and to get to the bridge to commandeer the vessel, the commandos would have had to climb three flights and pass through hundreds of passengers.

As a result, Marom decided to carry out the operation the way it was done. At 11 p.m. Sunday, the navy made initial contact with the ships and called on them to sail to Ashdod. After the calls were ignored, at 4 a.m. Monday, Marom, who by this time was on a Shaldag-class fast vessel alongside the Mavi Marmara, gave the order to board the ships.

Air force helicopters, carrying teams of commandos, took position above the upper decks of all of the ships. Five were commandeered without a hitch. When the first three soldiers hit the deck of the Mavi Marmara they came under attack. They were beaten with bats and metal pipes, slingshots were used to fire metal balls at them and knife-wielding passengers charged them from behind.

Marom had met with each commando ahead of the operation and was present during the training sessions. Expecting mild violence and mostly curses, shoves and spitting in the face, the navy even brought a behavioral science expert to teach them how to restrain themselves.

But the violence was far more aggressive than expected. After 90 seconds of scuffles and after a passenger had succeeded in grabbing a soldier’s gun and was pointing it at his head, the commandos dropped their paintball guns and pulled out their 9 mm. Glock pistols and began firing. Within less than four minutes, the nine passengers were killed and the Shayetet had taken control of the upper deck. Half an hour later, the bridge was in their hands as well.

WHILE THE media has been extremely critical of the navy and the Shayetet for killing nine passengers, those killed were  allegedly not innocent civilians. Each one of them, according to the navy, was a terrorist mercenary.

The group behind the violent resistance, the IDF believes, was hired by IHH, the radical Turkish Islamic group that funded the flotilla. The 50 or so members of this violent group were not carrying identity cards or passports. Each of them had an envelope in his pocket with about $10,000 in cash. One member of the group, who appears to have been the ringleader, it is claimed, traveled to Bursa in northwest Turkey and allegedly recruited mercenaries there.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a known supporter of IHH and there are suspicions in Israel that he, or other government officials, may have personally instructed the passengers on board the Mavi Marmara to violently attack the soldiers.

With videos later to prove its claim – albeit released too late in the day due to political battles between the IDF and the Foreign Ministry – there was little doubt that the commandos acted in self defense.

And that is why the second way of viewing the operation and its bottom line can not be ignored. The navy was given a mission to stop six ships from reaching Gaza and succeeded. Five ships were taken quickly and one was violent. But the end result is an operational success – nine terrorists were killed and while commandos were injured, all emerged alive. No women or children were killed, only the terrorists.

But instead of praise, the navy was met with fierce criticism. One possible reason is because the media and general public were not sufficiently prepared for such a possible outcome. While the difficulties involved in stopping a flotilla were recognized, no one, even in the navy, thought that the resistance would be so ferocious. Therefore, when nine passengers were killed, the easiest and instinctive explanation was that the navy had made a mistake.

If this is true, the navy’s one mistake might have been in not gathering more intelligence on IHH and the passengers on board. With the right information, the commandos would have likely been instructed to board the ship with more force and to forget about restraint.

This is not an easy time for the Shayetet. A unit which traditionally shies away from the limelight – the vast majority of its operations, even from decades ago, are still considered top secret – is not comfortable in the headlines.

Not much can be said about what Shayetet 13 commandos do on a regular basis. In the past year, they have reportedly operated in places like Sudan and elsewhere. In January 2009, on the sidelines of Operation Cast Lead, the Shayetet, according to foreign news reports, participated in the operation during which the air force bombed a convoy of trucks carrying weapons through the Sudanese desert.

Several weeks ago, the unit received two citations of valor from Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi. One of them was for a specific mission that cannot be written about. The other was for outstanding continuous operational service and the unit’s ability to operate around the clock.

A glimpse into what the Shayetet does was provided near Cyprus last November when commandos commandeered a cargo ship, the Francop, which was carrying hundreds of tons of weaponry from Iran to Hizbullah in Lebanon.

This week though, the image of an elite force landing by sea on an enemy coast and carrying out covert operations was somewhat shattered. As the videos of the clashes aboard the Mavi Marmara streamed into the command center under military headquarters in Tel Aviv, the IDF hesitated in releasing them due to the difficult images of watching commandos getting beaten by an angry mob, some of them even thrown off the ship.

Nevertheless, it is impossible to ignore the diplomatic damage the operation has caused. Still reeling from the Goldstone report, the government now needs to consider if it should launch its own independent inquiry to stave off an international one.

It is possible that a more effective public relations campaign would have helped, but as in the past – particularly during the Second Lebanon War and Operation Cast Lead – the government hasbara mechanisms collapse in moments of crisis. Instead of learning the lesson, collecting all of the spokesmen units and housing them under one organization, the government is now considering establishing another strategic media unit to join the dozen or so others that seem to always fail.

One lesson that is clear is that better intelligence could have brought about a better ending. The problem that led to this was a government and IDF misconception that the boats were carrying international peace activists and that the worst that could happen would be that they would push, slap or curse the boarding soldiers.

Before the operation, the fear in the IDF was that if the navy boarded the ships more aggressively – by firing warning shots and opening fire at the first person who raised a hand against the commandos – and the passengers turned out to really be peace activists, the world would be in an uproar.

Instead, the ships were boarded as if the passengers were peace activists, then the commandos  discovered that some were violent mercenaries, defended themselves and Israel still came under fierce international criticism.

As one senior IDF officer said this week: “It might just be that whatever we do these days there will be a Goldstone report waiting around the corner.”

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