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
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
’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
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.
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
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.
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
, gave the order to board the ships.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
to violently attack the soldiers.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
A glimpse into what the Shayetet does was provided
near Cyprus last November when commandos commandeered a cargo ship, the
, 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
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
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.
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.
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
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.”