Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said government leaders considered the possibility that naval commandos would meet violent resistance aboard an aid flotilla bound for the Gaza Strip on which nine activists were killed.
Barak, testifying today before a commission investigating the May 31 mid-sea operation, said seven senior ministers “brainstormed” scenarios for intercepting the six ships, and were skeptical about statements the passengers would practice non-violent resistance. He said he took “full responsibility” for ordering the raid, which provoked international condemnation and led to a rupture in relations with Turkey.
“We regret any loss of life,” said Barak, the second witness to meet the commission at a hearing in Jerusalem after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu testified yesterday. “But we would have lost more lives if we had behaved differently.”
Barak, 68, spoke for three hours about the inner debates between Cabinet ministers, army commanders and intelligence chiefs struggling to decide whether to intercept the ships full of pro-Palestinian activists intent on breaking Israel’s naval blockade of the Gaza Strip. His testimony conflicted with that of Netanyahu, who said the political debate among Cabinet members was largely about how to avoid looking bad in the media in dealing with the activists.
Lieutenant-General Gabi Ashkenazi, the Israel military chief of staff, is scheduled to testify tomorrow.
A United Nations panel reviewing the clash met today with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, and was scheduled to hold a work session later today in New York. Netanyahu said late yesterday that Israel won’t cooperate with any UN effort to question soldiers who took part in the operation.
Ban said yesterday he hadn’t agreed to any prohibition on the panel asking to speak with Israeli soldiers.
“The panel is not designed to determine individual criminal responsibility, but to examine and identify the facts, circumstances and the context of the incident, as well as to recommend ways of avoiding future incidents,” Ban’s office said in a statement.
The UN panel will review reports of Turkish and Israeli investigations of the clash, and can “request such clarifications and information as it may require from relevant national authorities.”
Barak, wearing a dark blue shirt and yellow tie, said army commanders were responsible for carrying out the operation, in which the commandos landed on the ships from helicopters.
“Ashkenazi stressed that it would not be simple but that we would do it,” Barak said. “The politicians determined the ‘what’ and the military worked out the ‘how.’”
Barak said the raid turned bloody because the Turks attacked the soldiers and could not be easily subdued, forcing the commandos to fight for their lives.
“No military operation ever goes as planned,” Barak said. “People can always second-guess you.” He said he would be more specific about problems encountered by the commandos in closed-door testimony.
Barak said Israel’s naval blockade of the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip remains “essential in protecting the citizens of the State of Israel” and is “in keeping with international law.”
Political, Military Decisions
The five-member Israeli panel, chaired by former Supreme Court Justice Jacob Turkel and joined by two non-voting international observers, is looking at the interplay of political and military decision-making behind the raid. The incident led Turkey, once Israel’s closest ally in the region, to suspend diplomatic and security cooperation with Israel.
Netanyahu, who was on a visit to Canada at the time of the raid, described Barak in his testimony as the “single address” responsible for the mission. The prime minister later issued a clarification to emphasize that he was still in charge of the government while traveling.
“As prime minister, the overall responsibility is always my own, whether I’m in the country or abroad and so it was in this case,” Netanyahu said in the statement.
Netanyahu and Barak are from rival parties in the ruling coalition.
An Israeli military inquiry concluded July 12 that faulty planning and intelligence failures contributed to the violence. The panel, headed by reserve Major-General Giora Eiland, said commandos from the elite “Shayetet 13” unit dropped from helicopters onto the aid ships before dawn, expecting little resistance from passengers.
Passengers aboard five of the ships reacted with non-violent resistance. On the sixth, the Mavi Marmara, Israeli forces were beaten, stabbed and shot after hitting the deck, according to the army. Turkish activists aboard the ship said the Israelis instigated the violence.
Israel and Egypt imposed a blockade of Gaza after the Islamic Hamas movement ousted forces loyal to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah group and seized full control of the territory in 2007. Hamas, which won Palestinian parliamentary elections the previous year, is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S., the European Union and Israel.
Palestinians, backed by the UN and human-rights groups, said restrictions on food imports and construction materials created a humanitarian crisis. Israel says it restricts imports of building materials to Gaza because they can be used to build rockets, bunkers or bombs. Officials said they were also concerned about weapons being hidden in food packaging.
The Israeli government said June 20 it would loosen the blockade for shipments by road so that all food will be let in and only weapons and items with a possible military use are kept out.