Thousands of mourners yesterday attended the funerals of eight men killed in the Israeli naval raid on a Turkish ship carrying pro-Palestinian activists trying to break the Gaza blockade. The display of solidarity – which included a huge banner proclaiming "You head to heaven. May God bless your martyrdom" – came on a day that the country's President Abdullah Gul said "Israel made one of the greatest mistakes in its history." The coffins of the dead men, draped in Turkish and Palestinian flags, were carried through crowds from Istanbul's Fatih mosque to cars to take them to a city cemetery. The men, seven Turks and a US citizen of Turkish origin, ranged in ages from 19 to 60. A ninth man was due to be buried today.
"Our friends have been massacred," said Bulent Yildirim, the head of Islamic organisation IHH that helped to fund and organise the Gaza flotilla. Israel has accused IHH of links with Hamas, which the group denies.
The funerals came as the Israeli military and returning activists continued to drive home their competing narratives of what took place aboard the vessel when it was stormed by commandos before dawn Monday some 75 miles offshore, in international waters.
Israel says the commandos resorted to force only after activists attacked them with knives, crowbars and clubs, as well as two pistols wrested from soldiers. Activists say the Israeli servicemen fired first.
One of the more comprehensive accounts of the raid from a passenger on board the Mavi Marmara came from Andre Abu Khalil, a cameraman for Al Jazeera TV. He told Reuters that activists wielding sticks overwhelmed an initial small group of commandos armed with anti-riot weapons. A second wave of marines stormed in, killing those in their way, he said.
Video footage released by the Israeli authorities showed activists beating soldiers, apparently with metal rods – and hurling one off the deck – after the first commandos rappel down ropes. A recently released video shows a group of men donning bulletproof vests and arming themselves with rods before the naval assault. So far no footage has been available of the subsequent shootings.
Mr Abu Khalil said: "There were four Israeli soldiers brought to the lowest deck. They had fracture wounds."
He said that he had heard from activists who had been on the top deck of the vessel that the soldiers had been captured during their attempt to descend from the helicopters. On Monday an Israeli commando said he was struck with metal bars and other troops were held down and stripped of their helmets and and equipment.
The cameraman added: "20 Turkish men formed a human shield to prevent the Israeli soldiers from scaling the ship. They had slingshots, water pipes and sticks. They were banging the pipes on the side of the ship to warn the Israelis not to get closer."
He said the stand-off lasted about 10 minutes until the Israelis opened fire. "One man got a direct hit to the head and another one was shot in the neck," he said, adding that he saw some 40 wounded people, some with bullet wounds to the legs, apparently to disable them. Others had wounds to the eye, stomach and chest. One activist used a loudhailer to tell the Israelis the four captive soldiers were well and would be released if they provided medical help for the wounded.
With an Israeli Arab Knesset member acting as mediator, the Israelis agreed to the request and the wounded were brought to the top deck where they were airlifted off the ship. Mr Yildirim, of the IHH, admitted there had been "hand-to-hand combat" and that "some of the soldiers" had been disarmed. He denied that any of the arms had been fired and said they had been thrown into the sea. He claimed: "We told our friends on board, 'We will die, become martyrs but never let us be shown as the ones that used guns.'"
Turkish newspapers yesterday quoted family members of two of the dead men as saying they had wanted to be "martyrs".
The Foreign Press Association in Israel yesterday complained that the Israeli authorities had released video footage without the permission of the foreign journalists who shot it.
Army spokeswoman Avital Leibovich said there was "a certain chance" the footage was filmed by journalists, but that most was filmed by activists. She said it was not confiscated and was found after activists were cleared from the boat.
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