By MATTHEW KALMAN/TIMES
Israel faces a wave of international condemnation and growing pressure to end its blockade on Gaza after 15 activists – all of them apparently Turkish – were killed and more than 30 injured after Israeli commandos boarded a ship attempting to carry banned supplies to the Hamas-controlled enclave. Israel says it cannot allow free access to Gaza that would create a route to smuggle weapons and fighters into the area. Organizers of the flotilla say the list of banned goods includes cement, paper, wheelchairs and some foods. See TIME’s photoessay “Palestinian ‘Day of Rage.'”
The passenger ferry Mavi Marmari, carrying an estimated 500 passengers, was the largest of six ships in a flotilla sailing towards Gaza in international waters about 40 miles off the Israeli coast when elite Shayetet-13 naval commandos abseiled from helicopters onto the deck shortly before dawn on May 31.
Greta Berlin, an American founder of the Free Gaza Movement and one of the organizers of the flotilla who was on another ship, said the commandos hit the deck firing indiscriminately at unarmed civilians.
“We never thought Israel would be stupid enough to kill 10 people and wound at least 30,” Berlin told Israel Radio.
“We are all civilians. Every one of us is a civilian who is trying to break Israel’s blockade of one and a half million Palestinians,” she said.
Television images broadcast from the ship showed passengers being treated on bloody stretchers. The dead and wounded were ferried to Israeli hospitals by helicopter. At least five Israeli commandos were hospitalized with gunshot and stab wounds. See TIME’s photoessay “Gaza Digs Out.”
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said the commandos had orders to use minimum force to commandeer the vessels and met only token resistance on the other five ships, which were commandeered without incident. But Barak said protestors on the Mava Marmari used “extreme violence” in their attempt to repel the boarders, attacking them with two pistols, knives, iron bars and other makeshift weapons. He said one of the passengers had seized a commando’s gun and opened fire on the Israelis.
“We express our regret over the injuries, but the flotilla’s organizers and its participants are fully responsible,” Barak told a news conference in Tel Aviv.
A journalist who was accompanying the commandos, Ron Ben-Yishai of the Israeli Ynet news website, listened over radio as the raid unfolded and said the Israelis fell into a “brutal ambush.”
“The passengers that awaited them on the deck pulled out bats, clubs, and slingshots with glass marbles, assaulting each soldier as he disembarked. The fighters were nabbed one by one and were beaten up badly, yet they attempted to fight back,” Ben-Yishai reported. See pictures of Israeli soldiers sweeping into Gaza.
“The commandos were equipped with handguns but were told they should only use them in the face of life-threatening situations. When they came down from the chopper, they kept on shouting to each other ‘don’t shoot, don’t shoot,’ even though they sustained numerous blows,” he wrote.
The commandeered ships were brought into Ashdod port several hours later, where passengers were interrogated by interior ministry officials and police who said most would be deported but they would arrest any terrorist suspects.
Danny Ayalon, Israel’s deputy foreign minister, claimed the IHH, the Turkish group operating the Mava Marmari, had “well-documented ties to Al-Qaeda and international jihad.”
“We told them they would not be allowed to break the blockade,” Ayalon said. “They were trying to create a free corridor of terrorist supplies to Gaza and to Hamas.”
Israel’s explanations for the pre-dawn assault failed to head off a growing diplomatic incident. Turkey accused Israel of “targeting innocent civilians”, quickly withdrew its ambassador to Israel and called for an emergency United Nations security council meeting. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan cut short his trip to Latin America to return to Ankara. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, meanwhile, cancelled his upcoming White House visit in order to deal with the situation.
The EU and UN both called for an end to Israel’s blockade on Gaza.
Baroness Ashton, the EU foreign policy chief, demanded a “full inquiry” into the incident and called for “an immediate, sustained and unconditional opening of the crossing for the flow of humanitarian aid, commercial goods and persons to and from Gaza.”
“Israel appears to have lost its mind,” says Soli Ozel, professor of international relations at Istanbul’s Bilgi University. “This incident happened in international waters, there is nothing that can explain it.” Ertugrul Ozkok, chief columnist for the Turkish daily Hurriyet, posted an emotional online editorial, saying he couldn’t wait for the paper to come out the next day: “There is no aspect to this action by the Israeli government that is acceptable or excusable,” he wrote. “I never expected this lunacy, this cruelty. As someone who lives in this region, it makes me afraid.”
There was fury also among Israel’s 1.6-million-strong Arab minority, whose leaders met in emergency session and declared a three-day general strike – a prelude in the past to rioting that has turned violent. Hamas claimed a moral victory against Israeli “piracy” while Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas denounced the assault as a “massacre,” declaring three days of official mourning and calling for an urgent meeting of the Arab League, expected to be held Wednesday. Palestinian demonstrators took to the streets of Ramallah and Bethlehem to denounce the Israeli actions.
Israeli police were placed on high alert, fearing that a wave of demonstrations could plunge the country back into intifada-style violence. In Nazareth, Israel’s largest Arab city, youths took to the streets in spontaneous protest as the news broke in the early morning. Arab students also staged protests at Haifa University and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. There was a heavy police presence in Wadi Ara, the artery connecting many Arab towns and villages in the Galilee, and security forces restricted access to the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in the Old City of Jerusalem, a frequent flashpoint for clashes.
– With reporting by Pelin Turgut