By Ari Rabinovitch
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli troops were not ready for the violent resistance they met when they boarded a Gaza-bound aid ship and killed nine pro-Palestinian activists, the country's top military officer said on Wednesday.
Speaking to an inquiry, Israeli Defense Forces Chief of Staff General Gabi Ashkenazi gave the most detailed explanation so far of what went wrong with the military plan in the May 31 raid, which sparked an international outcry.
IDF commandos failed to clear the decks with stun grenades they used, and rappelled from their helicopter straight into a brawl with men wielding iron bars and knives and were even met by gunfire, Ashkenazi said.
The raid quickly became "chaotic," he said. "After the first soldier went down the rope there was no choice but to continue with the plan."
International condemnation of the raid persuaded Israel to ease its Gaza blockade, which it says is aimed at preventing arms reaching the Hamas-ruled territory but also aggravates the privations of 1.5 million mostly aid-dependant Palestinians.
The nine activists killed were Turks. The raid almost ruptured Israel's relations with once-close Muslim ally Turkey.
The raid was seen at home as a debacle for Israel in terms of public relations and international image, although most Israelis consider the interception justified in principle.
Ashkenazi was the third senior figure to address the inquiry this week after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak appeared before it.
The commission offers a closely-managed forum in which Israeli leaders can argue their case and is separate from an independent investigation which opened at the United Nations in New York on Tuesday.
CLEAR THE DECKS
The operation to stop the ship from reaching the Gaza Strip, under blockade by Israel and Egypt, depended for its success on getting as many commandos on deck as possible in the shortest time, Ashkenazi said. But that did not happen.
Accurate suppressing fire from alongside the ship would have cleared the deck of anyone ready to violently resist the boarding, the general said. This was "a lesson we have learned."
The first commandos were armed with paintball guns and holstered sidearms in anticipation of only light resistance. The second soldier down the rope was shot in the stomach, he said.
Asked about Turkey's claim that activists were shot dead from close range, Ashkenazi said much of the fighting happened in close quarters. He told how a soldier shot one Turkish man about to swing an axe at him.
Ashkenazi also showed previously unpublished video of the raid which included images of three wounded Israeli commandos dragged to a lower deck and held by activists.
Israeli leaders insist Israel was legally within its rights to stop a deliberately provocative bid to break its naval blockade of the Gaza Strip.
The investigating panel has so far heard mostly pre-scripted statements. Cameras are turned off and reporters excluded for a closed-door question session. It is not the sort of public grilling familiar to viewers of televised U.S. Congressional hearings.
Israeli media have treated the inquiry with skepticism, focusing predominantly on what they see as buck-passing and finger-pointing in the top ranks of the leadership.
Netanyahu, Barak and Ashkenazi conceded that intelligence was imperfect. Ashkenazi said "we didn't know enough" about the Turkish activist group whose members were on deck.
(Additional reporting by Dan Williams; Writing by Douglas Hamilton; Editing by Janet Lawrence)