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Page last updated at 23:26 GMT, Sunday, 15 August 2010 00:26 UK
Inside Israel's commando unit which raided Gaza flotilla

Naval Commando 13 are training to tackle more flotillas heading to Gaza

By Jane Corbin
BBC Panorama

Israel's elite commando unit which raided a Turkish aid flotilla sailing to Gaza in May has given Panorama exclusive access to its top secret operatives.

Some of the Israeli special forces took off their balaclavas to talk to me and show me the wounds they received the night nine people were killed and 50 were wounded on board the Turkish ship the MV Mavi Marmara.

"I saw a knife in my abdomen and pulled it out," Captain R said.

"The beating was continuous - and the cries of Allah Akbar."

Israeli naval commando boat
Naval Commando 13 feel their use of force was justified

Israeli footage shows Captain R, a member of Naval Commando 13 being beaten with bars by activists, stabbed and then thrown to the deck below.

Who started the violence that ended in death on the boat, has been fiercely contested.

The Mavi Marmara was one of six ships crewed by activists from a coalition of pro-Palestinian groups in international waters about 80 miles (130km) from the Israeli coast on 31 May.

I was given exclusive access to Naval Commando 13 as they trained on a boat similar in size and layout to the Mavi Marmara.

I went to sea with them in one of their small inflatable boats, known as "morenos", as they trained in preparation for future aid flotillas.

The Gaza flotilla was organised by The Free Gaza Movement, and a Turkish group called the Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Aid (IHH).

There has been widespread international condemnation of the violence. Turkey withdrew its ambassador from Israel and cancelled joint military exercises. It wants an apology and an international investigation.

Israeli commandos

There were two opposing forces, one that wanted to kill us and the other more moderate trying to pull away those trying to escalate the situation and finish us off

Captain R, Israeli commando

Israel recently announced it would co-operate with a UN investigation in to the deaths, but is currently holding its own inquiry in which it has defended its commandos' actions.

The commandos insist their lives were in danger and they were under attack when they opened fire.

Turkish officials said autopsies carried out on the nine dead activists showed a total of 30 bullets had been found in their bodies, with one shot four times in the head.

Lieutenant A was one of the commandos in the boats that pulled up alongside the Mavi Marmara at 0430 after the flotilla ignored five Israeli navy warnings to turn back.

They said they were driven off by men with hoses and bars they had cut from the ship's railing earlier that night.

"They held metal rods and they were banging on the railings," Lieutenant A said, "they threw stones at us, metal and junk they had on the ship and several soldiers got hurt from that."

Sergeant Y was one of the commandos who abseiled from a helicopter on to the deck of the ship.

PREVIOUSLY ON PANORAMA

He said: "The activists tied the rope to the ship's antenna.

"It's very, very dangerous, we need to put our legs on the ground or else we just drop 15 or 20 metres." The commandos cut the first rope and abseiled out the other side of the helicopter.

I also spoke to Turkish activists in Istanbul.

After he was injured, Captain R and two other wounded commandos were taken below by Murat Akinan, a volunteer for the Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Aid (IHH), to where the wounded and dead were.

"Understandably, some people were saying - we should do to them what they did to us," Murat Akinan told me.

"But I calmed them down saying according to our religious beliefs we should treat them and take them back."

Feared for life

Captain R said he feared for his life: "I realised there were two opposing forces, one that wanted to kill us and the other more moderate trying to pull away those trying to escalate the situation and finish us off."

The captain was then taken upstairs - afraid he had been taken hostage.

"My guard was hit by an Israeli stun gun and ran inside," said Captain R. "I saw I was alone and jumped off the ship and our boat picked me up."

Israeli commandos have boarded several ships looking for arms destined for Gaza, which is governed by the Palestinian group Hamas.

Hamas denies Israel's right to exist and militants have fired thousands of rockets against civilian targets in Israel in recent years.

Israel has implemented strict controls over what goes in and out of Gaza by sea and land.

It says the naval blockade is needed to stop weapons entering Gaza. But the Palestinians say it causes suffering and has cut off economic life, and the blockade has been widely criticised as a form of collective punishment.

But the IHH is not just known for its humanitarian work. Western authorities and Israel have accused it of links to terrorists, a charge the IHH strongly denies.

The IHH has defended its use of bars, chains and knives against the commandos.

"It went beyond passive resistance because the Israelis had been firing from the start," Bulent Yildirim, the head of the IHH said.

"Our people were defending themselves while being fired at."

The Israelis said it was not possible to abseil from a helicopter while shooting and that they only switched from non-lethal weapons to live fire when they were shot at by the activists.

Giora Eiland
Giora Eiland said the activists "came to kill or be killed"

"We have very clear evidence that in at least four cases the other side did use live fire," said retired major general Giora Eiland, who carried out the investigation into events on board the ship.

"In some they used Israeli weapons stolen from our soldiers - in at least one case they used their weapon because we found bullets and shells not used by Israeli forces."

He said that the Israeli commandos' use of live ammunition was justified but admitted they "made mistakes" in intelligence and planning.

"These people came to kill and be killed," he said.

"And under the circumstances in a very complex area like a ship, the results - the deaths - are surprisingly low."

Giora Eiland said the IHH succeeded in its mission to draw the world's attention to the Gaza blockade.

"Unfortunately they managed to achieve exactly what they wanted, a provocation, to be able to show the Israelis caused the nine deaths," said Giora Eiland, "so Israel is seen as using excessive force and is guilty for everything."

Naval Commando 13 is continuing its training for more flotillas - expected this autumn.

The battle of the Mediterranean is not over yet.

Panorama: Death on the Med, BBC One, Monday 16 August at 2030 BST and then available in the UK on BBC iplayer.



SEE ALSO
Death in the Med: Panorama's response
Wednesday, 18 August 2010, 16:14 GMT |  Panorama
Activist wanted to be a 'martyr'
Sunday, 15 August 2010, 23:28 GMT |  Panorama
In pictures: At sea with Israel's elite commandos
Sunday, 15 August 2010, 23:30 GMT |  Panorama
Israel's commandos train for ops
Sunday, 15 August 2010, 23:31 GMT |  Panorama
Q&A: Israeli deadly raid on aid flotilla
Friday, 22 March 2013, 18:14 GMT |  Middle East

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