When Capt. John D., an Israeli university student and champion swimmer, was called up as a reserves commando of Shayetet 13 — Israel’s equivalent of the U.S. Navy SEALs — to train for the operation to stop the “Gaza Freedom Flotilla,” he says he expressed immediate concern regarding the use of paintball guns, a training weapon.
“They said: ‘What are you worried about? These are peace activists. Nothing will happen,’ ” John, who, for security reasons, would not reveal his full name, told a sympathetic audience of more than 500 Jews and Christians at Stephen S. Wise Temple on July 25. “I said, ‘You sure?’ And they said, ‘We’re sure.’ I thought: ‘They know what they’re doing. Let’s go.’ ”
John D. and his former Shayetet 13 comrade, Maj. (Res.) Yair Schindel, M.D., came to Los Angeles as guests of the Israel Christian Nexus/Alliance for Jerusalem to engage the Christian and Jewish community about their involvement in special operations. To better present its side of the flotilla incident, the IDF lifted the caution usually placed on special IDF forces that keeps it from going public about its operations.
“The world is so upside down for me that I have to come here to the United States — not to Libya and Syria — and hide with a hat ... to apologize for defending my own nation from terrorists,” John D. said in an Israeli accent to a round of applause. Disguised with sunglasses and a dark-blue cap, he is keeping his identity secret as a precaution against potential European indictments and Muslim threats.
John D. was the last to rappel onto the Turkish passenger ship Mavi Marmara, where, according to the commandos, pro-Palestinian activists deliberately staged a violent confrontation under humanitarian cover. The melee left nine Turkish rioters dead and seven IDF soldiers wounded, triggering international condemnation and marring Israeli-Turkish relations.
“They made us act like that,” John D. said.
In the Black Hawk helicopter on their way to the fleet, John D. described how “everybody was so cheerful. It would be a piece of cake. We’re going to meet peace activists.”
The worst they expected was insults. Suddenly, their helicopter was diverted to the troubled Mavi Marmara.
“Everybody got really confused,” he said. “We got to the Marmara and went down. It’s like a movie. Nothing is clear. Nothing is like we we’re told. Those guys were nothing like peace activists.”
About 500 nonviolent activists had moved to the lower decks of the ship, while some 100 others, armed with metal rods and knives, remained on the upper deck.
“We understood that’s not really what we were prepared for,” John D. said. “We took the guns out of our holsters and started our job. In about 30 minutes, we took over the ship. The image before us was horrible. ... I remember telling my teammate, ‘What a waste of life.’ ”
IDF medics spent the next 10 hours treating the wounded on both sides.
“A lot of things could have been done differently if we had better intel,” said Schindel, a former medical officer who is the founder of Atalef, a support organization for Israel navy veterans. He lives in Boston, where he works in the field of medical technology.
Some of the same staunchly pro-Israel audience members, most of them past middle age, came the next evening to the Luxe Hotel on Sunset Boulevard to hear the war stories of Maj. (Res.) Guy Meadan and Israeli American Ariel Siegelman. The two spoke about leaving their wives and young children to fight side by side during Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s incursion into Gaza in the winter of 2008-09, as reserve commandos of Unit 646, an elite paratroopers unit specializing in Gaza and southernIsrael. The event, organized by Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, drew more than 200 people.
Meadan believes the IDF’s handling of the flotilla reflects a deeper problem, fed by disproportionate international scrutiny: moral “confusion” among many Israelis.
“First, we have to win, and we’re going to do it,” Meadan said. “We’ll do what it takes. Then we have to defend the lives of our citizens, then the lives of soldiers, then the lives of innocent citizens on the other side. And that is the order it should be.”
Moral confusion, he said, led the IDF to shuffle this “order” during the 2006 Second Lebanon War, a war widely seen as a failure. But, he said, the IDF reevaluated its hierarchy of values before he led Unit 646 into the heart of Gaza.
“I was certain I was coming back with at least 10 coffins,” he said. “After what happened a few years before, I didn’t want to face the families again.”
All of his men came out of the mission without a scratch. The entire operation saw 10 IDF fatalities, compared to the 121 IDF fatalities during the Second Lebanon War. Meadan described Palestinian fighters fleeing battle scenes and booby-trapped positions because of the IDF’s corrected strategies.
But Meadan believes international criticism against Cast Lead, particularly the criticism of the Goldstone Report, again shifted the IDF’s values, and the flotilla is one result.
“Going in with paintball guns against 600 people, in which most of them, as you later find out, were a part of a terrorist organization and wanted to be shahids — martyrs — you shouldn’t expect anything else,” Meadan said.
The overlap in the audience and enthusiastic response to the commandos’ words prompted one questioner at both events to lament that they were “preaching to the choir,” which in itself elicited applause.
“This choir is very important for us and the safety of Israel,” Meadan said. “Without the support of the United States and especially the Jews in the United States, we’re pretty much f—-ed.”
The audience burst into laughter. Meadan attributed his foul language to Israeli informality, and then turned serious.
“Many people whine about the poor PR in Israel. It can be improved, that’s for sure, but I want to remind you [of] something: Jews were put on trains and sent to Auschwitz and Treblinka not because of bad PR. We can have the best spokesman, but we are judged by different standards.”