With two more vessels due to set sail in the next 48 hours to continue the challenge to Israel's Gaza blockade, Deputy Defence Minister Mattan Vilnai admitted Tuesday, June 1 that the Israeli commando seizure of the six-boat Gaza-bound flotilla Monday, May 31 had its faults. But he stressed the mission was nonetheless bravely accomplished. None of the six vessels reached Gaza port – albeit with regrettable loss of life. While the IDF would learn from its mistakes and do things differently, access to Gaza would continue to be blocked for as long as the Hamas-ruled territory was at war with Israel.
The deputy minister contemptuously dismissed furious demands at home for defence minister Ehud Barak to resign, saying the critics had "never go their feet wet." Images of Israeli elite commandos beaten with iron bars – one was thrown off the top deck – have infuriated Israelis.
Vilnai admitted: We underestimated the murderous intentions of the activists aboard the Turkish Marmora vessel and the force of international reaction to televised shots of a brutal situation – real battles never look good on television, he said. In that sense, the organizers of the Turkish-led international expedition achieved their aim. And indeed the UN Security Council early Tuesday capped the chorus of international disapproval by calling for Israel to conduct a prompt, impartial, credible and transparent investigation of the flotilla incident, condemning acts causing loss of civilian lives and requesting the immediate release of ships and civilians held by Israel.
Vilnai dismissed the avowed humanitarian aims of the convoy, reiterating that the people of Gaza are not hungry; neither is there any humanitarian crisis. Israel supplies its basic needs. Life there is certainly hard, he said, but "It can't be easy to live under a Hamas regime, which throws political opponents off the roofs to their death."
But like most Israeli spokesmen, the deputy minister neglected to drive home the blockade's main purpose: Without it, Iranian ships loaded with ballistic missiles would be free to unload their cargoes at Gaza Port – with the same ease as their heavy weapons consignments reach Lebanon. Hamas would quickly grow into a second Hizballah. For Israel, lifting the blockade would be an act of suicide.
Vilnai also missed his aim when he addressed the growing criticism at home of the way the raid was conducted. Much of it comes from veteran naval officers, who were deeply distressed on three counts:
1. They want the defense minister, who was deeply involved in every detail of the operation, to be accountable for its shortcomings.
2. They accuse the minister of sending the naval commandos of the elite Shayetet 6 unit into a clearly violent confrontation without adequate means of defense or options in case of violent resistance because he was afraid of international disapproval.
debkafile's military sources quote those officers as maintaining that when the activists on the Turkish Marmara saw that the commandos were virtually tied hand and foot, they were encouraged to extremes of violence. Had they been appropriately equipped, the troops could have quietly taken the helm and diverted the ship to Ashdod and the incident would have ended without loss of life.
3. Hundreds of people milling about on the deck ready to waylay the commandos as they landed were visible from the helicopters before the drops began. A small amount of tear gas would have cleared the decks and enabled the troops to perform their mission cleanly.
4. This was clearly no job for inadequately armed commandos highly trained for different sorts of combat. When Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu returns home Tuesday afternoon, he would do well to back away from mealy-mouthed rhetoric and state clearly in advance that any vessels, civilian or naval, venturing into the 20-nautical mile blockade zone would encounter warning fire first and if it was not heeded, direct fire. Semi-armed soldiers must not be asked to cover for timid politicians.
As for an inquiry into the episode, the IDF regularly holds probes into all operations leading to loss of life as a matter of routine. The Israeli public is just as insistent on a credible investigation as any outsiders.
The condition of all six hospitalized soldiers improved overnight by Tuesday morning.
Altogether 679 activists from 40 countries – most of them Turks and Greeks – travelled on the six flotilla vessels, most of them on the biggest ship, the Marmora. They were all taken ashore at Ashdod port Monday night, after 45 of the injured were earlier flown in to Israeli hospitals.
After agreeing to be processed and interrogated by Israeli police and security officers, 48 were deported Tuesday morning. Dozens more preferred jail. The cargoes are being examined for illegal materials, after which Israel will send the legitimate aid supplies to the Gaza Strip overland.