JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli commandos fired 308 live bullets aboard a Gaza-bound aid ship in May to repel passengers who attacked them with lethal weapons including a snatched Uzi machine pistol, Israel’s top general said on Sunday.
In a sometimes testy second round of testimony before a state-appointed inquest, Lieutenant-General Gabi Ashkenazi insisted the navy’s killing of nine pro-Palestinian Turks on the converted cruise ship Mavi Marmara had been unavoidable.
Marine commandos were equipped with riot-dispersal gear but quickly switched to live fire to confront armed passengers because “if they had not done this, there would have been more casualties,” Ashkenazi told the six-member Turkel Commission.
Ankara, which wants compensation and an apology from Israel, has dismissed the Turkel panel as too lacking in scope.
But the commission has invited testimony from Mavi Marmara passengers — many of whom insist the commandos’ onslaught was unprovoked — and signaled it may probe Israel’s navy deeper.
Ashkenazi said 308 live rounds were fired by the troops. A top aide to the general told Reuters 70 of these were aimed to cause injury, while the rest were warning shots.
That appeared consistent with Turkish forensic findings that the nine dead activists were shot a total of 30 times, and there were gunshot wounds among another 24 passengers who were hurt.
“Those who are asking questions (about tactics) should propose an alternative solution,” Ashkenazi said.
The Mavi Marmara and five other ships were trying to run an Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip, territory controlled by Hamas Islamists.
Ashkenazi said passengers grabbed three Glock handguns and an Uzi machine pistol from commandos whom they overpowered. The troops had been dropped from helicopters onto the crowded ship as it plowed through Mediterranean high seas at night.
“We have testimony of one activist running at them (marines) and firing with a mini-Uzi, and them shooting him,” he said. “They hit those who were clearly involved in the attack on them, and not those who were not.”
Mavi Marmara activists have said any guns taken from the troops were disposed of, rather than used. The U.N. Human Rights Council — which Israel boycotted — alleged in a report last month that several passengers may have been executed.
One of the dead Turks, the report said, suffered a fatal brain injury from a so-called “beanbag” round — a heavy pad fired from a shotgun and which, at safe ranges, is designed to knock down but not kill the person targeted.
Ashkenazi said commandos had fired some 350 beanbag rounds and non-lethal paintballs, all according to “prescribed method.” The navy opted against rubber bullets — a mainstay of Israel’s tactics against Palestinian demonstrations on land — because of a lethal risk within the Mavi Marmara’s confines, he added.
Ashkenazi, who is scheduled to retire early next year, made clear that he had returned to testify in order to spare scrutiny from subordinates, including the admiral in charge of the navy.
Bristling at Turkish and other foreign fury over the Mavi Marmara raid yet wary of international war crimes suits, Israel set up the Turkel Commission to help prepare its submission for a separate probe under U.N. Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon.
Ashkenazi, a career infantryman, said the commission had received “word for word” accounts from marines, including two who were shot and wounded upon boarding.
Endorsing the commandos’ recollection, Ashkenazi said they were combat veterans who “know when they are being shot at.”
But he also seemed to make allowances for the haze of melee.
“I won’t take issue with a soldier who might confuse a slingshot, and the whizz its missile makes as it flies past, with a pistol, in night-time” conditions, he said.
Editing by Peter Graff