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Naval commandos who stormed the Gaza bound flotilla, who are not allowed to be identified in photos.
Photo by Rhonda Spivak.

Nissim Sharify and Mayor o f Netanya Miriam Fierberg at ceremony for inaugauration of new synagogue shaking hands with the flotilla soldiers.
Photo by Rhonda Spivak.

Two of the soldiers during the ceremony.
Photo by Rhonda Spivak.

The crowd at the ceremony.
Photo by Rhonda Spivak.


By Rhonda Spivak, Netanya, Israel, August 4, 2010

I  never expected to  meet several of the Israeli  naval commandos who landed on the  Gaza flotilla, the “Mavi Marmara”, an event  that has consumed the world’s attention since the day it occurred on May 31, 2010.

It just so happened that my neighbor here, Orli Avior, the only Israeli to have served in the U.S. army in Afghanistan, happened to invite me to the inauguration ceremony of  a new neighborhood synagogue in Ramat Poleg , a nearby suburb of Netanya.

The synagogue, built by  Avior’s  friend, Nissan Sharify  in honour of his mother,  had decided to honour the Israeli soldiers from  the flotilla unit as part of the outdoor inauguration ceremony,  which was attended by the Mayor of Netanya, Miriam Fierberg, several Rabbis, and a crowd of several hundred people.

To be clear, it is not at all usual for the soldiers who stormed the flotilla to be attending public events—in fact, quite the opposite- it is a rarity. I gathered that they had not attended a public event like this before. They attended with the permission of the Israeli Defence Forces because Sharify himself had been a medic in that very same unit of the navy when he was in the army, and is a Major, who still serves in milluim (the reserves). Sharify, a lawyer,  provides  
legal counsel to I.D.F. soldiers, as part of  his duties  while in the reserves.

There they stood-a handful of them wearing the navy’s insignia on their uniforms. They were young, some with kippot, some without, some with beards, some without, some blue eyed, some brown eyed, some Ashkenazi, some Sephardi.  The ones in white shirts and black pants [ as opposed to tan shirts and tan pants] were more senior, having served in the navy for more than three years. They could have looked like any Israeli soldier—young men thrust into the eye of the storm, whose every action or inaction will be deliberated by Israel’s Turkel commission, and the U.N.’s International Review Panel.  If mistakes were or weren’t made in planning the operation, or at the political or diplomatic level, they really weren’t responsible. They are the small fry.

They were also the lucky ones from their unit, since several of  their  peers were injured by the “peace activists” who were beating them with clubs  on the flotilla.
I asked  how those injured in their unit were, and  was told by a senior soldier that those Israelis injured had thankfully recovered.  

Will these young men I met have to testify before any investigative commission?  I was told by one of them that this would not be the case. In fact, Israel just announced that it will co-operate  with the U.N.'s flotilla probe,  and  will appoint an Israeli representative to the panel.  According to Prime Minister Netanyahu's bureau, the establishment of the Turkel Commission  had been necessary to prevent a situation in which a UN panel would question Israeli Defense Forces, including the young men standing before me.

Israel's agreement to participate in a UN panel investigating IDF actions is a precedent  and was made after Netanyahu came under  a significant amount of international and domestic pressure. This will be the first time an Israeli representative will take part in a UN panel whose focus is Israel.

However, Sharify, who has acted as legal cousel for I.D.F. solderis before, says he is concerned that the UN panel will try to subpeona the I.D.F soldiers involved in the flotilla, notwithstanding any assurances received  by the Prime Minister's office.

"This is not a closed issue. I anticipate that  the UN panel will try to get them to testify, and if they do, then we [counsel for then I.D.F soldiers] will do everything possible to prevent this from happening."

When asked specifically what could be done, Sharify responded, "We will petition the Israeli High Court of Justice [the Supreme Court] for an order not allowing the state to require them to testify before any UN panel or other international tribunals.  My office will volunteer to defend them, if they need our help." . 

While the commissions of inquiry get under way, the current task of these soldiers  I met is not to agonize or deliberate over every moment of what happened that day. They have to continue in their training. As one of them said, they must concentrate on new tasks.

I, of course, asked if I could I interview them, knowing that the answer would be in the negative. When I asked if I could photograph them they called over the senior of the group. Army policy is that they can’t be identified, which I knew.  The young slender bearded soldier  thought for a moment. He smiled. Yes I could—as long as I didn’t photograph their ‘fronts.” He laughed when I said, “ O.K., I‘ll photograph you from behind.”   He gathered the junior men and smiling they turned their backs to me, and lined up outside of the men’s section of the synagogue, as I took the photo. Although I do not have a photo of their faces—I think I will remember them nonetheless. One of them asked where I was from and told me he had a friend originally from Winnipeg.

During the ceremony, these flotilla commandos sat in the front row. Some members of the audience came up to shake their hands. The crowd clapped when they were introduced.  Netanya’s Mayor spoke favourably of them, saying their intention when they  landed on the flotilla “was not to hurt anyone”, that they "acted morally", that the Gaza flotilla “was a deliberate provocation”, that  those on board the ship “planned to attack” them. She ended her remarks by noting that her husband when he served had been in the navy and wished these young soldiers a “Yasher Koach.”

When Nissim Sharify spoke he echoed similar sentiments.  “You acted in accordance with international law,” he said to the soldiers, to applause.  “No army is more moral than ours,” he continued. The United States isn’t one to point fingers at Israel, in light of its actions in Afghanistan, especially in the aftermath of all of the leaked documents about that war.   “You fought against terrorists,” he said to the soldiers.

I watched as a shofar was blown by a younger member of the crowd and one of the flotilla soldiers came up to him and the two men hugged. They shook hands.

Avior, who has witnessed war in Afghanistan first hand, came up to one of them, held out her hand and said, "Thank you for defending our country."

At the end of the ceremony  the soldiers were each presented with a book of tehilim.

It is a very small country. And the navy’s soldiers who stormed that flotilla on that fateful day  are no different than  anyone else who is drafted into the I.D.F in Israel. To the audience at the ceremony, any one of them could have just as easily  been the boy who lived next door, a cousin, a friend, a family member. They served their country. Undoubtedly, they never expected to have become the focus of the world's attention, nor the subject of what may seem like endless investigation.


By Rhonda spivak, August 10,2010

Last week on August 4th, I reported that I had met several of the Israeli naval commandos who had  landed on the Gaza bound flotilla, the Mavi Marmara.

At that time the senior soldier of the group made it clear to me that he could not talk about the incident involving the flotilla itself as it was against army policy. There were only two things he was comfortable in sharing on the record. One of the things he was willing to say was that the IDF soldiers involved in the incident   would "not have to appear to testify before any UN inquiry into the raid on the flotilla.” He said this to me, no doubt because he had been led to believe it was an open and shut case, and he thought what he was telling me was not the subject of any controversy.

What he told me was what Netanyahu’s bureau reported to the Jerusalem Post and other media last week when it announced that Israel would co-operate with the UN probe. Netanyahu’s bureau said it had received assurances that IDF soldiers would not be required to testify, and that the reason it had set up the Turkel Comission was so that the UN inquiry would be able to rely on the reports from Israel’s own inquiry, without calling fresh evidence on its own.

In  a country which relies on the universal draft, it is obvious that no Israeli government  would want to undermine the morale, spirit, and capabilities of the army, by allowing it's soldiers to have to fall prey to potentially endless international inquiries (which other soldiers in other countries do not have to face). 

On Saturday August 7,Nisan Sharify a  lawyer  who acts on behalf of IDF soldiers told me that he believed "that the UN panel would try to make IDF soldiers involved in the foltilla raid testify before it, even though Netanyahu says he received assurances this won't happen."

"Of course they are going to try to make IDF soldiers tesify.This is not a closed issue. I anticipate that the UN Panel will try to ge them to testify and if they do, we [counsel for the IDF] will do everything possible to prevent this from happening."

When asked specifically what could be done, Sharify responded, "We will petition the Israeli High Court of Justice [the Supreme Court] for an order not allowing the state to require them to testify before any UN panel or other international tribunals.  My office will volunteer to defend them, if they need our help."

Sharify had made similar remarks in public at an event on August 4th  last week to inaugerate a synagogue in Netanya named in honour of his late mother.

Sure enough, Sharify's instincts about the UN Inquiry have  proven correct.

By Monday August 9, Israel  threatened to pull out of the UN inquiry after the UN chief said there is no agreement that the panel will refrain from calling Israeli soldiers to testify. This happened after only a week earlier Netanyahu had agreed to co-operate in the UN panel and even appoint an Israeli representative to sit on it.

At a news conference at UN headquarters on Monday August 9, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was asked whether he agreed not to call Israeli soldiers before the panel.

"No, there was no such agreement behind the scenes," Ban said.

In response, the Israeli prime minister's office said "Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu makes it absolutely clear that Israel will not cooperate with and will not take part in any panel that seeks to interrogate Israeli soldiers."

So the question that now has to be asked is how come Nisan Sharify's analysis of the situation was correct all along and Netanyahu's bureau got it wrong?

What were the assurances that Netahyahu's office naively thought they had received and were they in writing?

Netanyahu owes it to the IDF soldiers, such as the ones I met,  to make sure he reads the map correctly this time.

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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

Opinions expressed in letters to the editor or articles by contributing writers are not necessarily endorsed by Winnipeg Jewish Review.