Israeli commandos storm aid flotilla; 9 killed
JERUSALEM (AP) – Israeli naval commandos stormed a flotilla of ships carrying aid and hundreds of pro-Palestinian activists to the blockaded Gaza Strip on Monday, killing nine passengers in a botched raid that provoked international outrage and a diplomatic crisis.
Dozens of activists and six Israeli soldiers were wounded in the bloody predawn confrontation in international waters. The violent takeover dealt yet another blow to Israel’s international image, already tarnished by war crimes accusations in Gaza and its 3-year-old blockade of the impoverished Palestinian territory.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanhayu canceled a much-anticipated meeting with President Barack Obama in Washington on Tuesday in a sign of just how gravely Israel viewed the uproar. In Canada, Netanyahu announced he was rushing home but said he had called the American president and agreed to meet again.
President Barack Obama voiced “deep regret” over the raid and “expressed the importance of learning all the facts and circumstances” surrounding the incident.
The activists were headed to Gaza to draw attention to the blockade, which Israel and Egypt imposed after the militant Hamas group seized the territory of 1.5 million Palestinians in 2007.
There were conflicting accounts of what happened early Monday, with activists claiming the Israelis opened fire without provocation and Israel insisting its forces fired in self defense.
Speaking alongside the Canadian prime minister, Netanyahu expressed “regret” for the loss of life but said the soldiers had no choice. “Our soldiers had to defend themselves, defend their lives, or they would have been killed,” he said.
Israel said it opened fire after its commandos were attacked by knives, clubs and live fire from two pistols wrested from soldiers after they rappelled from a helicopter at about 4 a.m. to board one of the vessels.
Night-vision footage released by the military showed soldiers dropping from a helicopter one by one and being grabbed by a mob of men wielding sticks on the lead boat, the Turkish-flagged Mavi Marmara. The soldiers succumbed to the assailants and fell to the deck, where the men continued to beat them and dump one of them from the top deck.
A commando who spoke to reporters on a naval vessel off the coast, identified only as “A,” said he and his comrades were taken off guard by a group of Arabic-speaking men when they landed on the deck.
Some soldiers were stripped of their helmets and equipment and thrown from the top deck to the lower deck, and some had even jumped overboard to save themselves, the commando said. At one point one of the activists seized one of the soldiers’ weapons and opened fire, the commando said.
Communications to the ships were cut shortly after the raid began, and activists were kept away from reporters after their boats were towed to the Israeli port of Ashdod.
Helicopters evacuated the wounded to Israeli hospitals, officials said. Five ships had reached port by early evening and some 136 activists had been removed without serious incident, the military said.
Sixteen were jailed for refusing to identify themselves, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said. Israel had said activists would be given the choice to be deported or imprisoned.
Israeli officials said the death toll was nine with 30 wounded, after earlier saying 10 people were killed. It said the final tally was reached after bringing all six boats in the flotilla under control.
A high-ranking naval official displayed a box confiscated from the boat containing switchblades, slingshots, metal balls and metal bats. Most of the dead were Turkish, he said.
In a sign the soldiers didn’t anticipate such fierce resistance, two commandos told The Associated Press that the primary weapons were guns that fired paintballs – a nonlethal weapon that can be used to subdue crowds. They said they resorted to lethal handgun fire after they were assaulted.
Turkey’s NTV network showed activists beating one commando with sticks as he landed on one of the boats. Dr. Arnon Afek, deputy director of Chaim Sheba Medical Center outside Tel Aviv, said two commandos were brought in with gunshot wounds. Another had serious head wounds from an unspecified blow, Afek added.
Activists, however, painted a completely different picture, saying the commandos stormed the ships after ordering them to stop in international waters, about 80 miles (130 kilometers) from Gaza’s coast.
A reporter with the pan-Arab satellite channel Al-Jazeera, who was sailing on the Turkish ship leading the flotilla, said the Israelis fired at the vessel before boarding it, wounding the captain.
“These savages are killing people here, please help,” a Turkish television reporter said.
The broadcast ended with a voice shouting in Hebrew, “Everybody shut up!”
At Barzilai hospital in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, a few activists trickled in under military escort. “They hit me,” said a Greek man, whose right arm was in a sling, calling the Israelis “pirates.” He did not give his name and later was escorted away with a neck brace.
At a news conference in Tel Aviv, Israel’s military chief of staff and navy commander said the violence was centered on the lead boat, which was carrying 600 of the 700 activists. Troops took over the five other boats without incident, military chief Gabi Ashkenazi said.
Reaction was swift and harsh, with a massive protest in Turkey, Israel’s longtime Muslim ally, which unofficially supported the mission. Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan accused Israel of “state terrorism,” and the government said it was recalling its ambassador and called off military exercises with the Jewish state.
The U.N. Security Council held an emergency meeting later Monday, while the Arab League planned to meet Tuesday in Cairo.
Robin Churchill, a professor of international law at the University of Dundee in Scotland, said the Israeli commandos boarded the ship outside of Israel’s territorial waters.
“As far as I can see, there is no legal basis for boarding these ships,” Churchill said.
Many of the activists were from Europe.
The European Union deplored what it called excessive use of force and called for the Gaza blockade to be lifted immediately, calling it “politically unacceptable.”
Israeli security forces were on alert across the country. Protesters gathered at two universities and burned tires and threw rocks in Israel’s largest Arab city, but no injuries were reported.
Organizers said two prominent activists, 1976 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mairead Corrigan Maguire and Holocaust survivor Hedy Epstein, 85, did not join the flotilla as planned.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas condemned the Israeli “massacre,” declared three days of mourning across the West Bank.
Ismail Haniyeh, leader of the rival Hamas government in Gaza, condemned the “brutal” Israeli attack and called on U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to intervene.
In Uganda, Ban condemned the deaths and called for a “thorough” investigation.
Before the ships set sail from waters off Cyprus on Sunday, Israel had urged the flotilla not to try to breach the blockade and offered to transfer some of the cargo to Gaza from an Israeli port, following a security inspection.
Organizers included the IHH, an Islamic humanitarian group that is based in Istanbul but operates in several other countries. Israel outlawed the group in 2008 because of its ties to Hamas.
The flotilla of three cargo ships and three passenger ships carrying 10,000 tons of aid and 700 activists was carrying items that Israel bars from reaching Gaza, like cement and other building materials.
Israel has allowed ships through five times, but has blocked them from entering Gaza waters since a three-week military offensive against Gaza’s Hamas rulers in January 2009.