Panel: 'Hanit' attack was preventable

Report says senior officer switched off key instruments hour before attack.

hanit navy warship 298.8 (photo credit: IDF)
hanit navy warship 298.8
(photo credit: IDF)
A panel of Navy officials that probed Hizbullah's radar-guided missile strike on the Hanit, one of the Navy's most sophisticated missile ships, reported on Tuesday that the attack - and the deaths of fours sailors - should have been thwarted. The IDF's report on the incident, which was completed on Sunday and submitted to Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz Tuesday afternoon, read: "As far as the intelligence picture is concerned, it was found that despite the lack of pinpoint information about the weapon in the hands of Hizbullah, there was information in the Navy in the past that could have lead to some type of an assessment that the enemy possesses shore-to-ship missiles." The investigative committee, led by Brig.-Gen. (res.) Nir Maor, found major flaws in the transfer of vital information from Military Intelligence to Naval Intelligence and to the commanders of the missile ships that patrolled off the coast of Beirut during the summer's war. Navy officials told the committee that they did not know Hizbullah was in possession of advanced anti-ship radar-guided missiles. Military Intelligence said the information was given to the Navy in 2003. According to the report, one Navy official, acting on a "gut feeling," raised the possibility that Hizbullah possessed Iranian missiles the morning of the attack, but was told by senior officers on the ship that such a threat was "imaginary and groundless." In addition to the intelligence failures, the committee found a senior naval officer had deactivated the Barak missile defense system on the ship an hour before the attack without notifying the captain. The Barak system was capable of intercepting and destroying the missile. The ship's command was caught so off-guard, that it did not know exactly what had happened until several hours after the missile strike, the committee found. Navy Chief Maj.-Gen. David Ben Bashat said the report was a cause for concern and that inadequacies revealed by the committee were already being addressed. But Bashat insisted that the Navy's general assessment that there was not a missile threat accounted for the actions of the ship's commanders. Bashat said instruments on two other ships patrolling the waters off Beiruit had identified the incoming missile, but had determined the object was Israeli air force jets returning from sorties over Lebanon. Therefore, he concluded, the missile strike could not have been prevented, even if all the Hanit's instruments had been functioning at the time. The report did not include recommendations for administrative action against any officers on the ship or in the Navy's upper echelons. Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah commented on the attack in real-time on the second day of the war, warning Israel, "You wanted an all-out war, and that is what you will get. You don't know who you are dealing with," in a phone interview with a Lebanese television station. Minutes later, television footage showed the missile being launched, and then striking the ship as Nasrallah remained on the phone. He coolly said, "A ship which was firing at the Shi'ite quarter of Beirut is on fire and is going to sink." Four sailors were killed in the attack when the Iranian C-802 radar-guided missile struck near a helicopter pad on the Sa'ar 5-class missile ship. A fire broke out and the ship was significantly damaged, but was able to return to an Israeli port under its own power. The missile was made in China, underwent upgrades in Iran, and from there was delivered to Hizbullah, military officials said. The Hanit is Israel's most advanced missile ship and boasts an array of Harpoon and Barak antimissile missiles, along with a system for electronically jamming incoming missiles and other threats. The committee had presented initial findings to Halutz on October 16 from its investigation into the July 14 missile attack on the Hanit. At the time, Navy sources said Halutz was not satisfied with the findings and asked that additional work be done. Yaakov Katz contributed to this report.