Navy commandos:‘They came for war’

Watch footage, read soldiers' description of the 'Mavi Marmara' raid.

Gaza boat escort 311 (photo credit: AP)
Gaza boat escort 311
(photo credit: AP)
“They came for war,” was how one Israel Navy commando described the activists aboard the Mavi Marmara Turkish passenger ship, where clashes erupted early Monday morning and ended with a reported 10 activists dead and dozens of others, including eight IDF soldiers, wounded.
A top Navy officer said that in the future, the Navy will be more aggressive and treat such ships like they were coming for “war.”
“Operation Sea Breeze,” as it was called by the IDF, actually began several hours earlier, at about 11 p.m. Sunday, as the navy made initial contact with the Mavi Marmara and the other five ships that were part of an international aid flotilla on its way to try and break the Israel-imposed sea blockade of Gaza.
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Speaking to reporters on Monday, naval commandos described the sequence of events as they had witnessed it.
After several hours of radio communications and warnings that the Mavi Marmara would be boarded if the captain did not change course, OC Navy V.-Adm. Eliezer “Chiney” Marom – who had set up a command post on the INS Victory – gave the order to Flotilla 13 naval commandos at 4 a.m. on Monday to board the ship.
The three Israel Air Force Blackhawk helicopters hovering nearby made their approach above the Mavi Marmara’s upper deck. Sitting on board, the naval commandos could just make out the few dozen activists gathered below. Carrying non-lethal weapons as well as pistols, the last thing the soldiers thought they would walk into was a well-planned lynch.
In a search of the ship the Navy discovered – in addition to the bats, metal pipes and knives – Molotov cocktails that had been prepared in advance by the so called “activists.”
“As the 15 of us slid down the ropes, 30 of them were waiting for us on the deck,” one of the commandos later told reporters. “They charged us and threw a few of the soldiers off the deck to the floor below. We did not expect to find ourselves in such a situation.”
'The soldiers acted nobly, not firing until 2 had been shot'
The assessment within the navy was that the activists would resist the Israeli takeover of their ship, but along the lines of the demonstrations the IDF faces weekly in the West Bank, where Palestinians protest against the security barrier. Rocks and punches would be thrown, it was assumed, and an occasional knife would be brandished – but not the extent of violence they met.
As the rope fell from the helicopter onto the Mavi Marmara’s deck, some of the Turkish activists grabbed it and tied it to an antenna, likely hoping that it would bring down the helicopter. The naval commandos decided nevertheless to go ahead with the operation and began sliding down to the ship.
Armed with rifles that shoot paintballs – which can hurt but not kill – the soldiers landed on the ship and immediately came under attack by dozens of activists armed with knives, bats and metal pipes. Activists grabbed soldiers and tried to hold them hostage, stripping them of their helmets and equipment.
One of the commandos tried to protect his comrade, who was under attack by a group of activists; they had been instructed by the flotilla commander to refrain from using their sidearms unless their lives were at risk.
Soldiers feared for their lives, asked permission to open fire
The force threw several stun grenades, but the violent attacks continued. Two soldiers were wounded, and some of the activists succeeded in stealing one of their guns. Shots were fired, and one of the soldiers fell to the ground, unconscious. Fearing for their lives, the soldiers asked and received permission to open fire, first taking aim at the activists’ feet.
In one corner of the ship, the commandos saw a gun flash. They returned fire and started chasing the shooter, but could not find him.
As the clashes intensified, additional commandos boarded the ship, as did members of the Border Police’s Yasam unit, who are experts in riot control and crowd dispersal. After less than an hour, the ship was in Israeli hands.
The price, though, was steep – eight soldiers were wounded, several of them seriously, and a reported 10 activists were killed.
By the evening, the naval commandos were back at their base in the North and had begun their debriefing.
The videos taken by the IDF were passed around the defense establishment and made their way to other special forces, including the Israel Police’s elite counter-terror unit, Yamam, which had fought to participate in the mission but had been left on the sidelines due to legal complications involving police operations at sea.
“The soldiers acted with the utmost nobility,” said one police source close to the Yamam. “They engaged in hand-to-hand combat, sustained injuries, but only opened fire after one of them was lying on the ground unconscious and two others had been shot. This was an unbelievable demonstration of restraint.”