Flotilla 13, the IDF's naval commandos, were the toast of Israel's military - until yesterday. The recipients of a rare citation for the entire unit from Chief of Staff, Lieutenant General Gabi Ashkenazi, only last month, the "Shayetet" are credited with numerous secret missions far away from the country's shores. According to the non-Israeli press, these missions included interdiction of ships bearing arms from Iran to Israel's enemies in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip.
So how were they humiliated by a bunch of club-wielding Turks and literally forced to use live-fire, causing nine deaths and an international crisis of unforeseeable dimensions?
The simple answer was that they were unprepared for the level of violence used by a small group in a contingent that claimed to be peace-seeking. They went into battle holding paintball guns designed for situations of minimal confrontation, harmless stun-grenades and their hand-guns holstered. After 40 minutes of hand-to-hand combat, their commander felt that after one officer had been stabbed, two more knocked and kicked senseless and a third thrown off the deck by a crazed mob, his men's lives were at risk if they didn't use firepower. Only then did he give the order to shoot.
But that is an insufficient excuse. The reality is that despite its much-vaunted intelligence capabilities and the most advanced aerial drones and surveillance systems in the world, the IDF failed to detect the fact that the group standing on the Turkish ferry's top-deck were equipped with an arsenal of metal clubs, catapults, flick-knives and Molotov cocktails and what's more, they were prepared to used them to kill. The commandoes were sent in with the wrong orders, because the military planners based their assumptions on past captures of blockade-breaking ships to Gaza, where they had met with little opposition.
The other cardinal mistake was using an over-qualified force. Flotilla 13 may be an elite force, capable of extraordinary feats, but this was plain and simple riot-dispersal. It was a job best fitted to the much less glamorous police units.
The commandos, trained to operate silently behind enemy lines and return to base undetected, were simply out of their depth. In their arrogance, the Navy's commanders failed to see this.