Israeli marines stormed a Turkish aid ship bound for Gaza on Monday and at least nine pro-Palestinian activists were killed, triggering a diplomatic crisis and an emergency session of the U.N. Security Council. European nations, as well as the United Nations and Turkey, voiced shock and outrage at the bloody end to the international campaigners’ bid to break Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip.
Boarding from dinghies and rappelling from helicopters, naval commandos stopped six ships, 700 people and 10,000 tons of supplies from reaching the Islamist-run Palestinian enclave – but bloody miscalculation left Israel isolated and condemned.
Even after the vessels were escorted into Israel’s Ashdod port, accounts of the pre-dawn operation some 120 km (75 miles) out in the Mediterranean were sketchy and limited to those from the Israeli side. Activists were held incommunicado, though Israeli officials said most would be free to go in due course.
Military night-vision video shoed commandos being winched down, only to be surrounded. Some Israeli commentators asked why commanders put troops into a position where they were cornered. An Israeli minister admitted plans to maintain the blockade on Hamas while avoiding an international incident had backfired in spectacular fashion. “It’s going to be a big scandal, no doubt about it,” Trade Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said. (Reuters) One marine told reporters his squad went in with anti-riot paintball guns but, fearing for their lives, resorted to using normal pistols or leapt overboard. “We were prepared to face human rights activists and we found people who came for war,” the marine told reporters. (Reuters) In military footage, a commando fired a paintball at a man who seemed to be clubbing an Israeli. Other video showed a commando fire a pistol, two-handed.
After the clash at sea, Israel closed one of the main border crossings into Gaza and turned back roughly 60 trucks of goods destined for the strip.
Israeli military officials said nine activists died on the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish cruise ship carrying nearly 600 people. Most of the dead were Turks, one senior Israeli officer said. Military officials said some activists had snatched pistols from the boarding party, which responded to gunfire. Seven troops and 20 protesters were injured, the military said. Some officials had earlier put the death toll at 10 or even higher.
Once-close Muslim ally Turkey accused it of “terrorism” in international waters. The U.N. Security Council met in emergency session. The European Union, a key aid donor to Palestinians, demanded an independent inquiry and an end to the Gaza embargo.
The bloodshed sparked street protests and government ire in Turkey, long Israel’s lone Muslim ally in the region. Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, whose Islamist views and outreach to Iran and other Israeli enemies are blamed by many in Israel for souring relations, said before cutting a short trip to Chile: “This action, totally contrary to the principles of international law, is inhumane state terrorism.” (Reuters) Murat Mercan, the head of the Turkish Grand National Assembly’s foreign affairs commission, said on television, “Israel launched this operation in international waters and to a ship flagged white, which is unacceptable under any clause of the international law.” He added, “We are going to see in the following days whether Israel has done it as a display of decisiveness or to commit political suicide.” (New York Times)
Thousands of protesters gathered in Istanbul’s Taksim Square, chanting anti-Israeli slogans and repeating Islamic verses while government officials called for calm and urged demonstrators to avoid retaliation against Israeli nationals. Protesters met in front of the Israeli Consulate earlier and marched toward the square carrying a banner that read, “Zionist Embassy should close down,” and chanting slogans including “Damn Israel” and “Long live global intifada.” (New York Times)
Israel told tourists in Turkey to stay indoors and dismissed any accusations that it had broken international law by boarding foreign ships far beyond its territorial waters. Israeli forces were on high alert but aside from scattered scuffles, there was little trouble with Palestinian borders.
Demonstrations in European cities included Stockholm, Rome and Athens, where police used tear gas against protesters who threw stones and bottles near Israel’s embassy to Greece. Riot police used tear gas to drive back hundreds of protesters demonstrating outside the Israeli Embassy in Paris. The Arab League condemned what it called a “terrorist act.” Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called it “inhuman.” (Reuters) Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said: “What Israel has committed on board the Freedom Flotilla was a massacre.” (Reuters) In Tehran, dozens of angry students pelted the U.N. offices with stones and eggs in protest, burning Israeli flags and chanting, “death to Israel” and “down with U.S.” Police blocked them from reaching the building. In Baghdad, an estimated 3,000 Shiite followers of the anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr shouted Death, death to Israel!” and “Death, death to America!” (Associated Press) The African Union issued a statement to “strongly condemn” the raid and said it “complicates the existing situation and the effort to bring just, lasting and comprehensive peace to the area.” (Associated Press) Abdel-Rahman al-Attiya, the head of the Gulf Cooperation Council, a regional group, said “Israel is a renegade entity that violates international law” and said the attack should be considered “a war crime.” (Associated Press) In Saudi Arabia, which has promoted a wider Arab-Israeli peace proposal calling for a land-for-peace swap, the Cabinet headed by King Abdullah called on the international community to hold Israel responsible for its “barbaric” polices. (Associated Press) In Beirut, about 500 Palestinians and Lebanese activists protested in front of the U.N. headquarters, setting Israeli flags on fire. In neighbouring Syria, more than 200 Syrian and Palestinian protesters staged a sit-in before the offices of the United Nations. Greta Berlin, a leader of the pro-Palestinian Free Gaza Movement, speaking by telephone from Cyprus, rejected the military’s version that the activists attacked the soldiers. “That is a lie,” she said, adding that it was inconceivable that the civilian passengers on board would have been “waiting up to fire on the Israeli military, with all its might. We never thought there would be any violence.” (New York Times)
Hundreds of protesters gathered near Downing Street in London, England to condemn the violence, and later moved on to the Israeli embassy in Kensington. Activists blocked Whitehall shouting “Free Palestine” and carrying flags and banners with slogans including “Stop Israel’s War Crimes in Gaza” and “End the Criminal Siege of Gaza.” (BBC) The BBC’s Louise Hubball said around 1,500 people were gathered at the embassy and that there had been “angry” scenes. She said the protesters – who included families with small children and some Jewish demonstrators – were calling for the Israeli ambassador to be ejected from the UK and for the British ambassador in Tel Aviv to be recalled. Kate Hudson, chairman of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), told the gathering it was “devastating and deplorable that the Israeli forces have attacked civilians.” (BBC) Other protests took place in Manchester and Bristol.
Closer to home, friends of a British Columbia man say he was aboard one of the six vessels stormed. Victoria environmentalist Zoe Blunt says her friend, Kevin Neish, was on one of the vessels. Blunt said she has been keeping in touch with Neish, 53, a Victoria resident, and last heard from him on Thursday. “These were all peace activists. I don’t believe that they were armed,” she said. “I certainly don’t believe that they would be provoking commandos with automatic weapons. What they were doing was, they were trained in non-violence. Kevin’s job specifically was to defend the journalists on the ship.” (CBC) Mr. Neish joined the convoy as a human shield. Friends said he drew on his experience as a rugby player, blocking the hallway and taking a beating by soldiers so as to buy journalists on board his ship time to file stories in the event of being boarded. “His role would be to stand in narrow hallways and passively block the hallway if the soldiers were to come on the ship,” Blunt explained. (The Globe & Mail) He has previously undertaken similar missions in hostile environments such as Columbia and Cuba, one friend says. Blunt said organizers believe Neish’s boat is safe. “I have just spoken to the organizer for Free Gaza in Washington D.C.,” she told CBC News on Monday morning. “He’s telling me that the Challenger 2 has been brought in to port in … Israel and we don’t have any access to the people on the ship but he believes there were no casualties on board the ship Kevin is on.” (CBC) Blunt said organizers say no one will be able to talk with Neish until at least Tuesday. She believes Neish was the only Canadian among the 600 people aboard the flotilla. “It’s what Kevin does, it’s what he believes in,” friend Anne Hansen said from Victoria Monday. “Basically, being an international citizen accompanying people in war-torn places, it gives protection to people who are under threat.” (The Globe & Mail)
More worryingly for Israel, its friends showed little sympathy. The outrage sounded at times more uniformly hostile to the Jewish state than during its offensive in Gaza, which killed 1,400 Palestinians in December 2008 and January 2009. Israel said it launched that war to curb Hamas rocket fire on its towns. But it has found it harder to win understanding for an embargo limiting supplies to 1.5 million people in Gaza, including cement the U.N. says it needs to repair bomb damage.
The Cairo-based Arab League called an emergency session for Tuesday to address the attack, as the two only Arab states with peace deals with Israel – Jordan and Egypt – sharply condemned the violence. The incident also put Egypt into a tight position. The only Arab country bordering the Gaza Strip, it has helped enforce the blockade by cracking down on smuggling tunnels that are a key source of goods to Gaza’s 1.5 million people and by rejecting pressure that it open its border crossing.
A group founded by Nelson Mandela that includes Nobel Peace Price winner Desmond Tutu and former President Jimmy Carter said “the treatment of people of Gaza is one of the world’s greatest human rights violations and that the blockade is not only illegal, it is counterproductive.” (Associated Press)
Israel’s most powerful friend, the United States, was more cautious. But President Barack Obama said he wanted the full facts soon and regretted the loss of life. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu voiced regrets as he cut short a visit to Canada and rang Obama to call off a White House meeting that had been planned for Tuesday. He said his forces had been attacked: “They were mobbed, they were clubbed, they were beaten, stabbed, there was even a report of gunfire. And our soldiers had to defend themselves.” (Reuters) Israel insisted Monday that its soldiers were defending themselves when they fatally shot the activists aboard the ship. Israel’s assertion was denied by one of the groups that sponsored the boat. The competing claims could not be independently verified. “They deliberately attacked soldiers,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told reporters at a photo op in Ottawa, Canada, with his Canadian counterpart. “What we want to prevent coming into Gaza are rockets, missiles, explosives and war material that could be used to attack our civilians,” he said. “This is an ongoing policy, and it was the one that guided our action” against the six ships that made up the flotilla. (CNN) People board five of the six ships agreed to let Israeli soldiers search through their goods for possible weapons, Netanyahu said. For all his regret, he vowed to maintain a three-year-old embargo to stop Iranian-backed Hamas from bringing arms to Gaza.
“It should be emphasized that both the State of Israel and the IDF made repeated calls to the flotilla, telling them that all goods and humanitarian aid could be transferred according to the secure and approved methods in place today, as is done on a near daily basis,” the Israel Defence Forces said in a written statement. “Unfortunately, this was not the case. IDF naval forces were met with premeditated violence, evident by the activists’ use of clubs, metal rods, and knives, as well as the firing of two weapons stolen from the soldiers, causing for defensive action on behalf of the forces who felt their lives were endangered.” (CNN)
IDF spokeswoman Lt. Col. Avital Leibowitz said light weapons and handguns were confiscated. “We basically encountered a lynch,” she said. “We had to control this violence.” (CNN) The IDF released a video shot from above that it said showed soldiers being attacked, though the distance from which it was shot precluded immediate confirmation.
In the United States, questions were asked about how an operation that aimed to avoid bloodshed had gone so badly and publicly wrong. The White House meeting had seemed intended to soothe ties with Obama, which have been strained by differences over Jewish settlement construction that delayed the recent revival of peace talks with the Palestinians. But Obama must also balance support for Israel, which is popular with American voters, with understanding for an angry Turkey and other Muslim U.S. allies.
A senior U.N. official responsible for the aid on which Gaza depends said: “Such tragedies are entirely avoidable if Israel heeds the repeated calls of the international community to end its counterproductive and unacceptable blockade of Gaza.” (Reuters) U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon and the European Union have called for an inquiry to establish what happened.