By Jeffrey Heller and Alastair Macdonald Jeffrey Heller And Alastair Macdonald –reuters
JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli commandos stormed Gaza-bound aid ships on Monday and at least 10 pro-Palestinian activists on board were killed, unleashing a diplomatic crisis and charges of a “massacre” from the Palestinian president.
The violent end to a Turkish-backed attempt to break Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip by six ships carrying some 600 people and relief supplies raised a storm of protest across the Middle East and far beyond.
As the navy escorted the ships toward the Israeli port of Ashdod, accounts remained sketchy of the pre-dawn interception out in the Mediterranean.
But the use of lethal force angered Israel’s long-time Muslim ally Turkey, which had supported the convoy. The United Nations condemned the violence and demanded an explanation from Israel, European Union demanded an inquiry and France said it was “profoundly shocked.”
Israeli officials said the marines were met with knives and staves when they boarded the ships, which included a large ferry flying the Turkish flag. In at least one incident, an activist seized a gun from the boarding party, they said. A military spokesman said two pistols were found on the captured vessels.
Independent accounts of the clash were not available since the navy cut ship-to-shore communications and Israel imposed military censorship on reports of the operation.
Israel’s attempts to maintain its three-year-old blockade on the Hamas Islamist-ruled enclave while avoiding bloodshed that would spark an international outcry collapsed in spectacular fashion. “It’s going to be a big scandal, no doubt about it,” Israel’s Trade Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer told Reuters.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said: “What Israel has committed on board the Freedom Flotilla was a massacre.” He declared three days of official mourning for the dead.
Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Danny Ayalon, blamed the activists for the violence and branded them allies of Israel’s Islamist enemies in Hamas and al Qaeda. Had they got through, he said, they would have opened an arms smuggling route to Gaza.
There was no question of easing the blockade, he said.
In a statement, the Israeli military said there “over 10 deaths among the demonstrators and numerous injured.” It said at least five soldiers were hurt.
HIGH ALERT, PEACE TALKS DOUBT
Israeli forces were on high alert on the Gaza, Syrian and Lebanese borders as well as around Jerusalem, the occupied West Bank and areas of northern Israel where much of the country’s Arab population lives. Israeli officials denied reports that a leading Israeli Arab Islamist had been killed on the convoy.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in Ottawa and officials said he was considering whether to cancel a White House meeting on Tuesday with U.S. President Barack Obama and fly home early.
Those talks had been expected to focus on U.S. efforts to advance tentative negotiations with Abbas. But peace talks, mediated by Obama’s envoy, seem unlikely to continue for now.
Israel’s Arab enemy Syria, which hosts the exile leadership of Gaza’s ruling Hamas movement, called for an emergency Arab League meeting to discuss the incident.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Israel’s interception of the ships was “inhuman.”
The United Nations’ coordinator for Middle East peace, Robert Serry, and the head of the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, Filippo Grandi, expressed shock at the killings aboard boats carrying humanitarian supplies in international waters.
“Such tragedies are entirely avoidable if Israel heeds the repeated calls of the international community to end its counterproductive and unacceptable blockade of Gaza,” they said in a joint statement.
More worryingly for Israel, its allies were unlikely to show much sympathy. The Turkish government, long Israel’s lone friend in the Muslim Middle East, “strongly protested.” It marked a new low in an already crumbling Israeli relationship with Ankara.
“Israel will have to suffer the consequences of this behavior,” a Turkish Foreign Ministry statement said.
Greece, some of whose citizens were on the convoy, halted a joint naval exercise with Israel and summoned the Israeli ambassador in Athens. Ireland, another country whose citizens were aboard, said it was “gravely concerned.”
DEFIANCE, AID REQUESTS
The convoy, carrying 10,000 tonnes of supplies, set off from international waters near Cyprus on Sunday in defiance of warnings that it would be intercepted. Israel had hoped to end the operation without bloodshed and had prepared air-conditioned tents at Ashdod for detainees.
Netanyahu’s spokesman Mark Regev said: “We made repeated offers that they should bring the boats to the port of Ashdod and from there we guaranteed that all humanitarian cargo would be transferred to the people of Gaza.”
Greta Berlin, a spokeswoman for the Free Gaza Movement that organized the convoy, said: “How could the Israeli military attack civilians like this? Do they think that because they can attack Palestinians indiscriminately they can attack anyone?”
Israel’s Western allies have been critical of the embargo on the 1.5 million people of Gaza, which the Jewish state says is aimed at preventing arms supplies from reaching Hamas.
In the Gaza Strip, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh described the Israeli action as piracy and praised the activists as heroes.
Turkey and Arab states were highly critical of Israel’s attack on Gaza 18 months ago, in which 1,400 Palestinians died.
The United Nations and Western powers have urged Israel to ease its restrictions to prevent a humanitarian crisis and allow for postwar reconstruction. Israel says food, medicine and medical equipment are allowed in regularly.
Television channels aired video of a woman in a Muslim headress holding a stretcher with a large bloodstain on it. Below her lay a man, apparently injured, in a blanket.
Others showed pictures of a commando apparently rappelling down a rope and clashing with a man wielding a stick.
(Writing by Alastair Macdonald, Additional reporting by Michele Kambas in Nicosia and Tulay Karadeniz in Ankara bureau)