In 1996, then a young officer in the navy, Rani Ben-Yehuda sailed to Turkey for
the first joint naval exercise between the two countries.
paved the way for the establishment of Reliant Mermaid, a trilateral
US-Turkish-Israeli naval search-and-rescue exercise that has been taking place
annually in the Mediterranean since 1999.
Two-and-a-half weeks ago, now a
vice-admiral and deputy commander of the Israel Navy, Ben-Yehuda was commanding
Operation Sea Breeze 7 from the navy’s underground command center several
stories below military headquarters in Tel Aviv. He watched the live thermal
video feed as the commandos from Flotilla 13 quickly rappelled down onto the
upper deck of the Mavi Marmara
where they came under attack.
of the operation was nine dead, all of them said by the IDF to be
who participated in a well-planned attack on the commandos.
But that was
just the immediate aftermath. The aftershocks of the operation are still
felt over two weeks later, with almost daily reports in the Turkish
the cancellation of defense contracts with Israeli companies and
of joint exercises with the IDF. Reliant Mermaid XI, scheduled for
now also likely to be canceled.
But Ben-Yehuda does not feel the need to
apologize. In an extensive interview with The Jerusalem Post
this week at his
office in navy headquarters, he explained how the commandos walked into a
w e l
l - p l a n n e d trap.
YES, HE admitted, the navy did not have
intelligence information indicating that the Turkish organization IHH
planning to attack the commandos with clubs, metal bars, knives and
pistols. But, once they realized what was happening, within 90 seconds
commandos succeeded in turning the tables on their attackers.
a clever group of terrorists on the ship who took advantage of the
platform and planned to kidnap, injure and kill Israeli soldiers,”
He also has no doubt that these people were
“Someone who takes a knife and charges a soldier is a
terrorist. You don’t need to come with an assault rifle,” he said. “But
turn from a civilian who curses and slaps to a civilian who stabs and
clubs or steals a weapon from a soldier, you turn from a civilian into a
If that was the case then why didn’t the so-called terrorists
carry real weapons? Ben-Yehuda had a clear explanation.
“The group knew
what they were doing, and if they were to attack the soldiers with guns
away, it would shatter their image as humanitarian activists, the image
weak against the strong,” he said.
The IDF, he added, has collected
evidence regarding several dozen passengers aboard the Mavi Marmara
alleged ties with terror organizations. Some of them are even known to
from previous runins with terror groups.
“There are growing signs and
proof that there were dozens of people on the ship who had connections
terrorist organizations from around the region and the world,”
He said the navy had two different ways to board the ship – one
more aggressive with tear gas, stun grenades and warning shots. The
the way the commandos boarded, with paint-ball guns on their backs and
on their thighs.
“It is clear that the outcome is not what we expected,
since we wanted an incident without any casualties,” he said. “But what
the world have said if I boarded aggressively and then innocent people
hurt? In this case, we preferred to protect our people as well as the
civilians who were aboard the ship.”
“We expected light resistance but
never expected to meet a group of terrorists,” he said, adding that in
“no innocent people were killed, only the terrorists. When you go into a
building that terrorists have taken over and you kill the terrorists and
the building, this is also a success.
This was the case here as
Beside wishing for better intelligence, Ben-Yehuda has one main
regret – not preparing the public for the possibility that there would
casualties in the operation.
“Had we known that there would be a group of
terrorists aboard the ship with the objective of killing Israeli
should have taken preemptive action by explaining what the ship was
what the consequences could be,” he said. “We should have warned the
activists what could happen.”
THAT IS why now the navy is not taking any
chances, particularly as ships from Iran and Lebanon are scheduled to
break the blockade in the coming days. IHH has also announced that it
six new ships to Gaza next month.
While Israel does not have intelligence
indicating the Iranian ships are carrying weaponry, Ben-Yehuda said that
navy’s assumption is that provocateurs would be on board.
that humanitarian activists who are planning on participating in these
flotillas think very hard, because they cannot know who is on these
said. “We believe that there will be groups that will try to make
and repeat what happened on the Mavi Marmara.”
The criticism following
the operation and the subsequent commissions of inquiry have not skipped
Ben-Yehuda or the navy, which is currently preparing to explain the
and the staff work that preceded it.
Ben-Yehuda pointed to a thick spiral
book on his desk which contained all of the minutes of meetings and
letters between the navy and various defense companies around the world
past 22 years regarding the search for a technology that can be used to
ship without having to board it. The documents come in different
indicating the navy’s contacts with militaries and defense industries
“There is no way to stop a ship without putting soldiers on the
deck,” he said.
Nevertheless, the navy has examined numerous types of
systems – from ropes that can be thrown into a ship’s propeller to small
submarines that can sail under a ship and sabotage its navigation
As recently as 2008, the navy held a number of meetings aimed at
discovering new technology, albeit without success.
“There is no navy in
the world that has a solution for this problem,” he said.
While the navy
came under criticism for boarding the ships in international waters,
revealed that the IDF held a number of discussions on the issue with
law experts to sharpen the legal ramifications of the operation.
reason international waters were chosen was out of concern that if the
were allowed to approach Gaza, the navy would find itself between the
international flotilla on one side and possible Hamas terror boats on
He also had no doubt that under the current circumstances, and
with Hamas in control of the Gaza Strip, the sea blockade is imperative
security. The blockade, he said, is legitimate under international law,
used, he said, by coalition forces during the First Gulf War on the Port
Aqaba, which the Americans thought was being used to smuggle weaponry to
“Israel did not invent this, and neither did the navy,” he
There is also, he said, no real way to board ships at sea and
discover well-hidden explosives and weaponry.
“What do people want,” he
asks, “for us to rip apart hundreds of sacks of rice and equipment? The
is at a port, and that is why we offered the flotilla numerous times the
opportunity to dock in Ashdod, unload the supplies and transfer it to
If the blockade is lifted, he has no doubt that Hamas will within
days begin receiving shipment after shipment of weaponry.
“You don’t have
to be a great strategist to figure this out,” he said. “In the end,
missiles will fall on Tel Aviv and what will people say then? We cannot