Israel's military chief on Sunday staunchly defended his troops' actions during a deadly raid on a pro-Palestinian flotilla in May, saying commandos resorted to live fire only after they were shot at by protesters.
The May 31 clash at sea resulted in the deaths of nine Turkish pro-Palestinian activists, one a dual U.S.-Turkish citizen, and set off an international outcry that spurred Israel into significantly easing its blockade of Gaza.
The Israeli military chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, was the first witness to be called to testify a second time before the official Israeli commission looking into the bloody raid.
Ashkenazi told the panel that an Israeli commando who rappelled down from a helicopter into a crowd of activists aboard the Mavi Marmara vessel was shot in the stomach. An Israeli forensic examination determined the bullet was not fired from an Israeli weapon, the army chief added, saying that provided proof that activists had their own firearms and were prepared to fight.
"This wasn't a demonstration of peace activists," said Ashkenazi, noting that those on board were "equipped and organized" with axes as well as gas masks.
The organizers of the flotilla, which was carrying activists and aid for Gaza, have said those on board the Mavi Marmara only acted in self-defense after they were attacked by Israeli forces in international waters.
A recent U.N.-commissioned report into the raid said there was "no evidence to suggest that any of the passengers used firearms or that any firearms were taken on board the ship." It said that doctors on the vessel who examined three injured soldiers noted no firearm injuries, and that Israeli allegations of gunshot wounds to soldiers are "inconsistent and contradictory."
Ashkenazi said commandoes fired 308 live bullets, but he insisted his soldiers took steps to minimize casualties. He said naval commandos fired about 350 rounds from non-lethal weapons, including paintballs and bean bags.
The military chief gave one example of an activist who choked a soldier with a metal wire. Instead of responding with live fire, the soldier exploded a stun grenade next to himself _ risking personal injury in order to distance the activist, Ashkenazi said.
He added that in addition to the pistol activists used to fire at an Israeli soldier, they stole one mini Uzi and three Glock pistols from Israeli soldiers on the boat.
Israel has insisted that there was no humanitarian crisis in Gaza, that it would transfer the aid from one of its ports to Gaza, and that the Mavi Marmara flotilla _ and others like it _ were simply provocative propaganda exercises.
In the wake of the outcry over the raid, Israel relaxed its land blockade, allowing most consumer items into Gaza.
Also Sunday, the Israeli commission released a public request for people who were on the Mavi Marmara to come forward to offer their own testimony. So far the pro-Palestinian activists and Turkish organizers have refused to cooperate with the Israeli inquiry. Turkey demands an Israeli apology and compensation, and the fallout from Israel's raid has seriously damaged relations between the once close allies.
Ashkenazi testified in August about Israel's naval blockade on Gaza, designed to keep weapons out of the hands of the militant Islamic Hamas rulers of Gaza.
On Sunday the commission asked about details of the navy's operational orders and its commandeering of the Mavi Marmara.
Ashkenazi said commandos threw a stun grenade to clear the deck where about 15 activists gathered, but it the group only dispersed for a moment, and activists rushed soldiers as they came down from helicopters. He said activists beat and stabbed the troops and fired shots, endangering the troops' lives. Soldiers responded with live fire, killing nine.