Alex Rozkovsky/Reuters – 2010-06-01 00:41:08
JERUSALEM (May 31, 2010) — Israeli naval commandos raided a flotilla carrying thousands of tons of supplies for Gaza in international waters on Monday morning, killing at least 10 people, according to the Israeli military and activists traveling with the flotilla. Some Israeli news reports put the death toll higher.
The confrontation drew widespread international condemnation of Israel, with Israeli envoys summoned to explain their country’s actions in several European countries.
The criticism offered a propaganda coup to Israel’s foes, particularly Hamas, the militant group that holds sway in Gaza, and damaged Israel’s ties to Turkey, one of its most important Muslim partners and the unofficial sponsor of the Gaza-bound convoy. Turkey recalled its ambassador to Israel, and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan cut short a visit to Latin America to return home.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu canceled his plans for meeting with President Obama in Washington on Tuesday, an Israeli government official confirmed. Mr. Netanyahu, who is visiting Canada, planned to return home Monday to deal with fallout from the raid, the official said.
The Israeli Defense Forces said more than 10 people were killed when naval personnel boarding the six ships in the aid convoy met with “live fire and light weaponry including knives and clubs.” The naval forces then “employed riot dispersal means, including live fire,” the military said in a statement.
Greta Berlin, a leader of the pro-Palestinian Free Gaza Movement, speaking by telephone from Cyprus, rejected the military’s version.
“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,” she said.
At least four Israeli soldiers were wounded in the operation, some from gunfire, according to the military. Television footage from the flotilla before communications were cut showed what appeared to be commandos sliding down ropes from helicopters onto one of the vessels in the flotilla, while Israeli high-speed naval vessels surrounded the convoy.
A military statement said two activists were later found with pistols they had taken from Israeli commandos. The activists, the military said, had apparently opened fire “as evident by the empty pistol magazines.”
The warships first intercepted the convoy of cargo and passenger boats shortly before midnight on Sunday, according to activists on one vessel. Israel had vowed not to let the flotilla reach the shores of Gaza.
Named the Freedom Flotilla and led by the Free Gaza Movement and a Turkish organization, Insani Yardim Vakfi, the convoy was the most ambitious attempt yet to break Israel’s three-year blockade of Gaza.
About 600 passengers were said to be aboard the vessels, including the 1976 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Mairead Corrigan-Maguire of Northern Ireland, and a Holocaust survivor, Hedy Epstein, 85.
“What we have seen this morning is a war crime,” said Saeb Erakat, the chief Palestinian negotiator for the government in the West Bank. “These were civilian ships carrying civilians and civilian goods – medicine, wheelchairs, food, construction materials.”
“What Israel does in Gaza is appalling,” he added. “No informed and decent human can say otherwise.”
At a news conference on Monday in Jerusalem, Israeli deputy foreign minister, Danny Ayalon, said the flotilla’s intent was “not to transfer humanitarian things to Gaza” but to break the Israeli blockade.
“This blockade is legal,” he said, “and aimed at preventing the infiltration of terror and terrorists into Gaza.”
Ms. Berlin, of the Free Gaza Movement, said, “They attacked us this morning in international waters. According to the coordinates, we were 70 miles off the Israeli coast.”
Within hours, diplomatic repercussions began to spread from the Mediterranean to Europe where Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s high representative for foreign affairs, called for a full inquiry into the incident and the immediate lifting of the Israeli blockade of Gaza.
Bill Burton, a deputy press secretary for the White House, said, “The United States deeply regrets the loss of life and injuries sustained and is currently working to understand the circumstances surrounding this tragedy.”
A joint statement from Robert Serry and Filippo Grandi, two senior United Nations officials involved in the Middle East peace process and humanitarian aid to Gaza, condemned the raid, which they said was “apparently in international waters.”
“We wish to make clear that such tragedies are entirely avoidable if Israel heeds the repeated calls of the international community to end its counterproductive and unacceptable blockade of Gaza,” the officials said.
President Nicolas Sarkozy of France called Israel’s use of force “disproportionate,” while William Hague, the British foreign secretary, said he deplored the loss of life. Tony Blair, the representative of the so-called quartet of powers seeking a Middle East settlement, said in a statement that he expressed “deep regret and shock at the tragic loss of life.”
“We need a different and better way of helping the people of Gaza and avoiding the hardship and tragedy that is inherent in the current situation,” the statement said. The quartet includes the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia. In London, hundreds of pro-Palestinian protesters blocked Whitehall, the broad avenue running past the prime minister’s residence and office at 10 Downing Street.
Turkey strongly condemned the Israeli military action.
“Regardless of any reasoning, such actions against civilians engaged in only peaceful activities are unacceptable,” said a statement on the Foreign Ministry’s Web site on Monday. “Israel will be required to face the consequences of this act that involves violation of the international law.”
“Israel launched this operation in international waters and to a ship flagged white, which is unacceptable under any clause of the international law,” the head of the Turkish Grand National Assembly’s Foreign Affairs Commission, Murat Mercan, said on the Turkish station NTV.
“We are going to see in the following days whether Israel has done it as a display of decisiveness or to commit political suicide.”
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.”
Crowds also gathered outside the Ankara residence of Gabi Levi, the Israeli ambassador, who was summoned to the Foreign Ministry.
Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary general, said Israel should provide a full explanation of what happened. News reports said the authorities in Egypt and Jordan, two Arab neighbors which have peace treaties with Israel, had summoned Israeli envoys to protest the action.
The outcry from Muslim leaders was strong and immediate. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, called the incident “a massacre,” according to the official Wafa news agency. Mr. Abbas is to meet with President Obama in Washington next week.
Saad Hariri, the Lebanese prime minister, denounced the raid as “a dangerous and crazy step that will exacerbate tensions in the region,” while the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, said it was “inhuman.”
Channel 10, a private television station in Israel, quoted the Israeli trade minister, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, as saying 14 to 16 people had been killed. He said on Israeli Army Radio that commandos boarded the ships by sliding down on ropes from a hovering helicopter and were then struck by passengers with “batons and tools.”
“The moment someone tries to snatch your weapon, to steal your weapons, that’s where you begin to lose control,” Mr. Ben-Eliezer said, according to Reuters.
Jamal El Shayyal, a reporter from the television broadcaster Al Jazeera, was on board the Mavi Marmara, the largest of the six ships, during the assault. He said in a video report that dozens of civilians had been injured in the fighting.
The I.D.F. said the ships from the convoy would be taken to the Israeli port of Ashdod, north of Gaza, where “naval forces will perform security checks in order to identify the people on board the ships and their equipment.”
On Sunday, three Israeli Navy missile boats had left the Haifa naval base in northern Israel a few minutes after 9 p.m. local time, planning to intercept the flotilla. After asking the captains of the boats to identify themselves, the navy told them they were approaching a blockaded area and asked them either to proceed to Ashdod or return to their countries of origin.
The activists responded that they would continue toward their destination, Gaza.
Speaking by satellite phone from the Challenger 1 boat, which has foreign legislators and other high-profile figures on board, a Free Gaza Movement leader, Huwaida Arraf, said: “We communicated to them clearly that we are unarmed civilians. We asked them not to use violence.”
Earlier Sunday, Ms. Arraf said the boats would keep trying to move forward “until they either disable our boats or jump on board.”
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.