â€œThey came for war,â€ was how one Israeli Navy commando described the activists aboard the Mavi Marmara Turkish passenger boat where clashes erupted early Monday morning and ended with at least nine activists dead and dozens others, including eight IDF soldiers, injured.
"Operation Sea Breeze", as it was called by the IDF, actually began several hours earlier at about 11 pm Sunday night as the Navy made its initial contact with the Mavi Marmara and the other five ships which were part of an international aid flotilla on its way to try and break the Israel-imposed sea blockade on Gaza.
After several hours of radio communications and warnings that the Mavi Marmara would be boarded if the captain did not change his ship’s course, at 4 am Monday, OC Navy Vice-Admiral Eliezer "Cheney" Marom, who had set up a command post on the INS Victory, gave the order to Flotilla 13 to board the ship.
The three Israeli 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-planed lynch.
"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 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 as well as an occasional knife 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, tied it to an antenna likely hoping that it would bring down the helicopter. The Navy commandos decided to still go ahead with the operation and began sliding down onto the ship.
Armed with rifles that could 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 soldiers tried to protect a commando who was being lynched by a group of activists. They were instructed by the flotilla commander to refrain from using their sidearm 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 injured and some of the activists succeeded in stealing one of the soldier’s 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 well as members of the Border Police’s Yasam unit who are experts in riot control and crowd dispersion. After less than an hour, the ship was in Israeli hands. The price though was steep – eight soldiers were injured, several of them seriously and at least nine activists were killed.
By the evening, the naval commandos were back at their base in northern Israel and had begun their debriefing.
The videos taken by the IDF were passed around throughout 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 out 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."