Speaking before the Turkel Commission probing the raid on the Gaza-bound flotilla in May, Defense Minister Ehud Barak on Tuesday contradicted statement's made by the prime minister on Monday, who told the committee the seven-minister forum only discussed the media aspects of stopping the flotilla and did not address the operational aspects.
"The decision to stop the flotilla, which was made by the prime minister and the seven-minister forum, was made after examining the entire situation and the dilemmas," Barak said, stressing that "the discussion that was held by the seven-minister forum dealt not only with the media aspects of stopping the flotilla, but also with the military aspects."
The defense minister said IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and the head of the military's research department were present at the meeting, and answered all the ministers' questions on the professional aspects of the operation. "During the deliberations, the chief of staff repeatedly expressed his concern with the public-media affect of using force to stop the flotilla, he stressed to the ministers, 'It won't be easy, but we will carry out the mission'," Barak told the panel.
According to Barak, the government did not discuss the possibility of a radical violent resistance onboard the Turkish-owned Marmara ship.
"There was intelligence information and we raised additional options. During the seven-minister forum a question was raised of what should be done in case of serious violence and shooting of RPG and machine guns and firing on our forces in the sea. We didn't reach that discussion," he told the committee.
"It was clear that it would be more violent than before. I don't think anyone imagined that we would find ourselves regretting the deaths of nine people… In operations there are always margins of uncertainty. In such cases you create a spectrum of options."
He added that "the political echelon must make a fundamental decision, not from which side you get off the helicopter, and then the operation echelon must ask whether it could be done or not."
'Military said: It will be difficult, but we will do it'
During the seven-minister forum discussion, Barak said, "colorful and detailed alternatives" were raised. He said there were those who proposed not stopping the sail and allowing it to enter Gaza.
"There was no way that people didn't understand the situation. Ministers without portfolios but with a lot of brains immediately raised questions." Ultimately, the defense minister said, the ministers supported stopping the flotilla despite what that would entail. "The choice was not between good and bad, but a choice between two bad options."
He stressed that he stands behind the ministers' decision, which he called "right and reasonable." Barak said, "What will stand for the next time, is the systematic learning of lessons, probes and constructive criticism – and not ignoring the difficult reality."
"I spent most of my life in operations," Barak said, "The difference between success and complications is as thin as a strand of hair. Here, the goal of stopping the sail was achieved. I salute the IDF fighters and expect them to learn all the lessons from the probes. We have an excellent military and chief of staff, and excellent fighters."
Barak, testifying before committee on Tuesday (Photo: Mark Salem Israel)
According to Barak, "There was confusion in the public debate regarding the political echelon and the military's authorities. The political echelon decides what needs to be done and takes responsibility. The military echelon decides how it should be done and takes responsibility.
"Obviously, the political echelon cannot assign tasks that cannot be carried out. In the case in question the military echelon did not say it cannot be carried out. They said, 'It will be difficult, but will do it.' They did not say how it should be done, and rightfully so. They said there would be distressing images, but they did not say it couldn’t be done and they even said the opposite." According to Barak, "If the decision was right, then the gap between what we wanted and what happened is the execution."
Shorty after he began speaking at 9 am, Barak stated that he takes responsibility for the incident. "I take full responsibility for what occurs in the systems subordinate to me," Barak said.
"I take full responsibility for the political echelon's orders as they were given during the flotilla incident," the defense minister added, stating that even before the flotilla arrived efforts were made on the political, intelligence and military fronts, including preparations for a takeover.
'This is not America'
Barak added that the flotilla was a "planned provocation meant to embarrass Israel" and said other protest flotillas are still planning to set sail. "Israel is fighting for its right to exist in one of the toughest corners of the world. This is not America, this is not northern Europe," he said.
Barak said that on April 22 he asked the military men during a meeting, "What's the right thing to do and do you know how to do it?". According to the defense minister, the officers responded saying the military was prepared and capable of handling this flotilla, just as it had with previous flotillas, despite the difficulties. On May 6, the issue was raised once again, and Barak ordered the involvement of "additional elements to stop the flotilla". He defined this alignment as "special".
'Ministers with brains immediately raised questions' (Photo: Mark Salem Israel)
Judge Jacob Turkel, who heads the committee, interrupted Barak and asked, "Was it only the Navy's intelligence that was included and not other organizations?". Barak responded saying, "I was not aware of the problems between the Military Intelligence and other organizations. I was only exposed to this in hindsight."
When asked if the blockade on the Gaza Strip is in accordance with the law and whether upholding it is legal, Barak referred the committee's members to three documents – a letter by Amos Gilad which reviews that circumstances that led to the siege, a document by the attorney general addressing the blockade, and an overview by Major General Eitan Dangot on the civilian situation in the Strip.
Barak noted that at the time Hamas took over the Gaza Strip, the organization had hundreds of missiles – and now, it has 5,000. "The siege is necessary to stop Gaza from turning into a giant weapons store to be used against the citizens of the State," he explained.
Mavi Marmara. The ship taken over by Israel commandos (Archive photo: Avi Roccah)
Kadima: Barak breaking records of audacity
The Kadima faction responded to Barak's testimony by saying that the defense minister "has broken the audacity record set by Netanyahu and has shamelessly placed responsibility on those in uniform for his failures and those of his government.
"The government is stammering and looking to deflect blame for the entanglement it created for itself. The Netanyahu government is not just irresponsible, but can't take responsibility as well."
The Turkel Commission entered its second day of work after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's testimony on Monday caused a storm, and led him to publish a clarification.
In his testimony, Netanyahu appeared to shift responsibility to the defense minister, who he said was the man in charge while the PM was abroad.
Later, Netanyahu published a clarification saying, "The overall responsibility is always mine – whether I'm in Israel or abroad."
In his testimony, the prime minister refused to answer a number of questions, and when he did respond, he indirectly placed responsibility with Barak. "I left instructions and asked the defense minister to activate me and the top ministers if necessary. I wanted there to be one address here in Israel and he (Barak) was that address," the prime minister said.
Ari Galahar contributed to this report
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