Al Jazeera | 31 May 2010
Israeli commandos have attacked a flotilla of aid-carrying ships off the coast of the Gaza Strip, killing up to 19 people on board.
Dozens of others were injured when troops raided the convoy of six ships, dubbed the Freedom Flotilla, early on Monday.
Israel said activists on board attacked its commandos as they boarded the ships, while the flotilla’s organisers said the Israeli forces opened fire first, as soon as they stormed the convoy.
Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, gave his “full backing” to the military forces after the raid.
“The prime minister… reiterated his full backing for the IDF [Israeli Defence Forces] and inquired about the well-being of the wounded,” his office told the AFP news agency.
He also said Israel regretted the loss of life in the raid.
Israeli media reported that many of the dead were Turkish nationals.
Organisers of the Freedom Flotilla say it was carrying 700 activists and 10,000 tonnes of humanitarian aid with the aim of breaking the Israeli siege of Gaza.
Hamas, the Palestinian group which governs the Gaza Strip, said the assault was a “massacre” and called on the international community to intervene.
Hamas, whose leader in Gaza, Ismail Haniya, called the Israeli action “barbaric”, urged Arabs and Muslims to show their anger by staging protests outside Israeli embassies across the globe.
The call came even as demonstrations denouncing the Israeli raid were being held in many cities around the world, including the capitals of Syria, Jordan and Lebanon.
Palestinians in the occupied West Bank clashed with Israeli security forces who responded with tear gas, injuring many.
Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, officially declared a three-day state of mourning.
Thousands of Turkish protesters tried to storm the Israeli consulate in Istanbul soon after the news of the operation broke. The protesters shouted “Damn Israel” as police blocked them.
“[The interception on the convoy] is unacceptable … Israel will have to endure the consequences of this behaviour,” the Turkish foreign ministry said in a statement.
The United Nations Security Council was to meet on Monday afternoon for an emergency session to discuss the matter.
Turkey, Spain, Greece, Denmark and Sweden have all summoned the Israeli ambassadors in their respective countries to protest against the assault.
Al Jazeera’s Jamal Elshayyal, on board the flotilla’s lead ship, the Mavi Marmara, said in his last report before communications were cut off, that Israeli troops used live ammunition during the assault.
The Israeli military, 10 of whose soldiers were reportedly wounded in the operation, said troops opened fire after “demonstrators on board attacked the IDF naval personnel with live fire and light weaponry including knives and clubs”.
Our correspondent said that a white surrender flag was raised from the ship and there was no live fire coming from the passengers.
Al Jazeera’s Sherine Tadros, reporting from the Israeli port of Ashdod, where the aid ships were taken after the assault, said the Israeli army was not giving any details of who had been killed, injured or detained.
She said about 50 flotilla activists had been taken to an Israeli prison after the first two ships docked.
“As soon as [the ships] land here, the goods are taken, put into a terminal, and the passengers undergo extensive security checks.
“[They are] given the choice either to go home straight away, in which case they’re being bussed to Tel Aviv airport, or if they resist deportation, they are taken to a nearby detention centre where we understand they will be for at least 72 hours.”
Defending Monday’s military raid, Mark Regev, the Israeli government spokesperson, said the Israeli commandos came under fire from people on board the flotilla whom he branded as “violent extremists”.
“Israel was totally within its rights under international law to intercept the ship and to take it to the port of Ashdod,” he told Al Jazeera.
“Unfortunately they were met by the activists on the boats with deadly violence, knives, metal clubs, even live fire on our service people. They initiated the violence.”
He said the people on board the flotilla were not peaceful activists.
“They are part of the IHH, which is a radical Turkish Islamist organisation which has been investigated by Western governments and by the Turkish government itself in the past for their links with terrorist organisations.”
Turkish parliamentarians have dismissed this claim, saying the ship and the people on board had been investigated and no links to such organisations found.
Murat Mercan, the head of Turkey’s foreign relations committee, said claiming that activists on board had links to terrorist organisations was Israel’s way of covering up its mistake.
“Any allegation that the members of this ship is attached to al-Qaeda is a big lie because there are Israeli civilians, Israeli authorities, Israeli parliamentarians on board the ship,” he told Al Jazeera.
“Does he [Regev] think that those are also attached to al-Qaeda?”
The flotilla was attacked in international waters, 65km off the Palestinian coastal enclave.
Avital Leibovich, an Israeli military spokeswoman, confirmed that the attack took place in international waters, saying: “This happened in waters outside of Israeli territory, but we have the right to defend ourselves.”
Footage from the Mavi Marmara showed armed Israeli soldiers boarding the ship and helicopters flying overhead.
Israeli accounts of the incident said its navy had contacted the Mavi Marmara‘s captain asking him to identify himself and say where the ship was headed.
Shortly afterwards, two Israeli naval vessels flanked the flotilla on either side, but at a distance.
Organisers of the flotilla then diverted their ships and slowed down to avoid a confrontation during the night.
They also issued all passengers life jackets and asked them to remain below deck.
Troops on alert
Following the news of the flotilla deaths, Israeli police were put on a heightened state of alert across the country to prevent any civil disturbances.
Sheikh Raed Salah,a leading member of the Islamic Movement who was on board theMavi Marmara, was reported to have been seriously injured in Monday’s raid. He was being treated in Israel’s Tal Hasharon hospital.
In Um Al Faham, the stronghold of the Islamic Movement in Israel and the birthplace of Salah, preparations for mass demonstrations were under way.
Hundreds of pro-Palestinian activists, including a Nobel laureate and several European legislators, were on board the flotilla.
They came from the UK, Ireland, Algeria, Kuwait, Greece and Turkey among other countries.
But Israel had said it would stop the flotilla before it could reach Gaza.
The flotilla had set sail from a port in Cyprus on Sunday and aimed to reach Gaza by Monday morning.
Israel said the boats were embarking on “an act of provocation” against the Israeli military rather than providing aid, and issued warrants to prohibit their entrance to Gaza.
It asserted that the flotilla would be breaking international law by landing in Gaza, a claim the organisers rejected.
The 10,000 tonnes of aid carried by the convoy included medicine, water purification devices and construction material.
Adnan Abu-Hasana, a spokesman for UNRWA, said the Gazans are in dire need of aid after Israel’s war on the territory in December 2008-January 2009 destroyed buildings and infrastructure.
“We need hundreds of thousands of tonnes [of aid] to rebuild Gaza,” he told Al Jazeera.
“We need more of building materials… We need spare parts for machines in the agricultural and industrial sectors, for the fishermen, all these sectors are nearly collapsed.
“Eighty per cent of the Gazans are dependent on humanitarian aid coming from UN organisations such as UNRWA.”