The navy man with the plan

Deputy OC Navy offers ‘Post’ an in-depth explanation of what exactly happened during the 'Mavi Marmara' raid.

Ship 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Ship 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
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.
That exercise 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.
The result of the operation was nine dead, all of them said by the IDF to be “mercenaries” who participated in a well-planned attack on the commandos.
But that was just the immediate aftermath. The aftershocks of the operation are still being felt over two weeks later, with almost daily reports in the Turkish media about the cancellation of defense contracts with Israeli companies and cancellations of joint exercises with the IDF. Reliant Mermaid XI, scheduled for August, is 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 was planning to attack the commandos with clubs, metal bars, knives and stolen pistols. But, once they realized what was happening, within 90 seconds the commandos succeeded in turning the tables on their attackers.
“There was a clever group of terrorists on the ship who took advantage of the humanitarian platform and planned to kidnap, injure and kill Israeli soldiers,” Ben-Yehuda said.
He also has no doubt that these people were terrorists.
“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 when you turn from a civilian who curses and slaps to a civilian who stabs and beats with clubs or steals a weapon from a soldier, you turn from a civilian into a terrorist.”
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 right away, it would shatter their image as humanitarian activists, the image of the weak against the strong,” he said.
The IDF, he added, has collected evidence regarding several dozen passengers aboard the Mavi Marmara who have alleged ties with terror organizations. Some of them are even known to the IDF from previous runins with terror groups.
“There are growing signs and proof that there were dozens of people on the ship who had connections with terrorist organizations from around the region and the world,” Ben-Yehuda said.
He said the navy had two different ways to board the ship – one more aggressive with tear gas, stun grenades and warning shots. The other was the way the commandos boarded, with paint-ball guns on their backs and pistols 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 would the world have said if I boarded aggressively and then innocent people were hurt? In this case, we preferred to protect our people as well as the innocent civilians who were aboard the ship.”
“We expected light resistance but never expected to meet a group of terrorists,” he said, adding that in the end “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 free the building, this is also a success.
This was the case here as well.”
Beside wishing for better intelligence, Ben-Yehuda has one main regret – not preparing the public for the possibility that there would be casualties in the operation.
“Had we known that there would be a group of terrorists aboard the ship with the objective of killing Israeli soldiers, we should have taken preemptive action by explaining what the ship was doing and what the consequences could be,” he said. “We should have warned the innocent 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 try to break the blockade in the coming days. IHH has also announced that it will send six new ships to Gaza next month.
While Israel does not have intelligence indicating the Iranian ships are carrying weaponry, Ben-Yehuda said that the navy’s assumption is that provocateurs would be on board.
“I recommend that humanitarian activists who are planning on participating in these new flotillas think very hard, because they cannot know who is on these ships,” he said. “We believe that there will be groups that will try to make provocations and repeat what happened on the Mavi Marmara.”
The criticism following the operation and the subsequent commissions of inquiry have not skipped over Ben-Yehuda or the navy, which is currently preparing to explain the operation 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 exchanges of letters between the navy and various defense companies around the world from the past 22 years regarding the search for a technology that can be used to stop a ship without having to board it. The documents come in different languages, indicating the navy’s contacts with militaries and defense industries around the world.
“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 systems.
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, Ben-Yehuda revealed that the IDF held a number of discussions on the issue with maritime law experts to sharpen the legal ramifications of the operation.
The reason international waters were chosen was out of concern that if the ships were allowed to approach Gaza, the navy would find itself between the international flotilla on one side and possible Hamas terror boats on the other.
He also had no doubt that under the current circumstances, and with Hamas in control of the Gaza Strip, the sea blockade is imperative for security. The blockade, he said, is legitimate under international law, and was used, he said, by coalition forces during the First Gulf War on the Port of Aqaba, which the Americans thought was being used to smuggle weaponry to Iraq.
“Israel did not invent this, and neither did the navy,” he said.
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 only way 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 the Gaza Strip.”
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, long-range missiles will fall on Tel Aviv and what will people say then? We cannot allow this.”