JERUSALEM, Israel - It was IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi's turn on Wednesday to testify before the Turkel Commission, the panel investigating the May 31 Turkish flotilla incident.
On Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was the first senior official to be questioned by the committee, followed by Defense Minister Ehud Barak on Tuesday.
Ashkenazi affirmed up front that as commanding officer of the Israel Defense Forces, he accepts total responsibility for the operation aboard the Turkish flagship on May 31 in which nine pro-Palestinian "activists" were killed.
The general expressed full confidence in the conduct of the Navy commandos who boarded the ship that fateful night, echoing Netanyahu and Barak, who also spoke highly of the IDF troops.
"The commandos exhibited calm, bravery and morality in accordance with IDF values," Ashkenazi said.
"From the moment the operation began, it was clear that the circumstances were unprecedented," Ashkenazi said, noting that the second soldier who rapelled onto the ship from a helicopter was immediately shot.
"The main mistake, including mine, was that we thought there were about 10-15 people on the deck. We thought we could throw flash grenades, clear [the deck] and then we would be able to drop 15 soldiers in one minute," he said.
"This was the mistake. We should have used precise fire to incapacitate those preventing the soldiers from rapelling down to the ship to reduce the risk of harm to them. This is the main lesson for the next operation," the general said.
Ashkenazi also said he was lacking information on IHH, the Turkish humanitarian aid group that sponsored the flotilla.
"The level of knowledge the IDF had on the organization was not like the level of information we have on Hamas. We did not investigate the organization. It was not a priority because it is not defined as a terror organization and is based in Turkey, which is not an enemy state," he said.
Nonetheless, the soldiers responded professionally and correctly to the ambush they confronted.
"The soldiers legitimately opened fire and shot those who they needed to shoot and not those who they didn't need to shoot," he said.
The commander in chief also said the naval blockade is the only way to prevent arms smuggling to Hamas, whose "extremist ideology rejects Israel's existence and poses a threat to the State of Israel."
"The sea blockade is crucial in preventing terror groups from smuggling large quantities of weaponry into Gaza by sea," Ashkenazi said.