(Pictured: Emblem of Shayetet – Flotilla – 13.)
“We will have to come prepared in the future as if it was a war.”
– Top Israeli Naval Commander on the response to efforts to break the siege of Gaza
The attack on the flagship of the Freedom Flotilla on May 31, 2010 was carried out by an elite branch of the Israeli Navy known as the Shayetet 13, or Flotilla 13 in English. The unit, “one of the most decorated units in the Israeli military,” is frequently compared to the U.S. Navy Seals – most recently in the news for their high profile extrajudicial execution in Pakistan – and they sometimes train together.
The Shayetet 13 (or S-13; get your t-shirts here!) reputedly “specializes in sea-to-land incursions, counter-terrorism, sabotage, maritime intelligence gathering, maritime hostage rescue, and boarding.” As such, they represent a telling choice to lead operations to stop civilian ships in international waters. Imagine if in 1961 Washington had sent the Green Berets to halt the Freedom Rides in the Deep South.
The outcome of last year’s operation in the dead of night could hardly have come as a great shock. Sending lethal combat teams on operations of civilian crowd control is a recipe for bloodshed.
The point was made by Max Blumenthal just days after the attack on the Mavi Marmara. He quotes the leading Israeli daily Maariv in an article published before the May 31 attack: “If the people aboard the boats will not agree to turn around, the operation will transfer to the stage of force.” The article quotes a “high ranking” Israeli officer: “We want to avoid using force but as soon as there will be danger to the life of our forces we will be forced to use live fire as a last resort.” As Blumenthal comments, “The stated conditions for using live fire were arbitrary and poorly defined, giving the commandos little direction and lots of leeway to kill — at the very least the plan demanded force in some form.”
In the past decade, the S-13 have become engaged in enforcing the occupations of Gaza and the West Bank, including participation in the infamous April 2002 combat in Jenin, and earned a reputation for extrajudicial executions in Nablus in 2004.
Most telling, the Israeli political leadership has sent clear signals that they intend to once again stop the flotilla, using violence if necessary to “neutralize” passengers. They have refused to apologize to Turkey or the United States (not that Washington would seek such an apology anyway) for the executions of their citizens last year.
The Times of London reported last year, shortly after the Mavi Marmara attack, that, “Israeli military experts have questioned whether it was wise to send a unit trained in covert operations behind enemy lines into a scenario with so many civilians present.” The Times paraphrased an Israeli military analyst commenting that the S-13 “should have been sent with a police force, or other security unit more accustomed to riot control and civilian disturbances.”
Yet once again Israel appears to be planning to board the ship with heavily armed commandos, rather than, say, simply disabling the propeller and towing the ship. Just days after the 2010 attack, Israeli officials were already asserting that the S-13 would likely be used in any similar future actions. Furthermore, “a top Navy commander” told The Jerusalem Post anonymously that, “We boarded the ship and were attacked as if it was a war. That will mean that we will have to come prepared in the future as if it was a war.”
In October, Netanyahu visited the Atlit naval base to address the S-13, and spoke of their “professionalism,” “heroism,” and “restraint.” He said of the flotilla raid, “The Shayetet’s mission was vital, necessary, legal and of the utmost importance.”
Then he went on to tell his men — while the Israeli government’s internal investigation (the Turkel Committee) into the killings was ongoing, thus inevitably prejudicing the results — “You, the fighters, encountered a violent terrorist-supporting force armed with knives, clubs and electric chain saws, and also with arms. I have to say that your actions against people that came to kill you and tried to kill you were professional and characterized by heroism, restraint and a morality that I don’t believe could be exemplified any better by any army or navy in the world.” He assured them that, “you enjoy my full backing as well as the full backing of the Israeli government, the Israeli people and of every decent person looking at the facts as they are.”
The Prime Minister told his elite team, “I salute all of you. You act in the name of the State of Israel for Israel’s security. Nobody’s better than you. I salute you.”
All of which is just as well perhaps – it is certainly a more honorable course than throwing the hired muscle under the bus after they finish the dirty work. But it is also an indication of the depths of debasement that Israeli political culture is plumbing.
As Blumenthal commented in the aftermath of the flotilla raid, “Though Israel may be more isolated than ever as a result of the massacre, the Netanyahu administration is reaping considerable political benefits at home. The day after the massacre, spontaneous celebrations broke out in Ashdod, Tel Aviv, and throughout the country, bringing together right-wing elements with everyday Israelis.”
Not to be outdone in the midst of this rapturous ode, Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi piped in with, “You shot at whom you had to, and not at those you didn’t have to.” Official sanction does not get much clearer than that.
Meanwhile, rather than seek assurances for the safety of its citizens, Washington has devoted itself to initiatives to prevent the flotilla from getting out of the docks.
Fittingly, reports indicate that all participants in the flotilla will undergo nonviolence training — while the S-13 preparations consist of additional training in hand-to-hand combat.
Along with Kevin Funk, Steven Fake is the author of “Scramble for Africa: Darfur – Intervention and the USA” (Black Rose Books). They maintain a website with their commentary at scrambleforafrica.org.