Israel was struggling to contain a rapidly mounting diplomatic crisis last night after naval commandos killed at least nine pro-Palestinian activists in international waters after storming their Turkish passenger ship as it attempted to reach the coast of the besieged Gaza strip.
Amid international calls for a full investigation, Ankara's accusations of "state terrorism" and angry protests at embassies around the globe, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pulled out of a planned meeting with US President Barack Obama and flew back home to deal with the backlash from the pre-dawn confrontation. The flotilla – made up of the Mavi Marmara ferry and five other vessels – had left the coast of Cyprus on Sunday, aiming to deliver around 700 activists and 10,000 tons of aid supplies into Gaza yesterday in the biggest effort yet to break Israel's three year blockade of the Hamas-controlled territory. But the finale was bloody.
According to Israeli officials, commandos opened fire in self-defence after descending by winch from helicopters and boarding the Mavi Marmara from dinghies about 75 miles offshore and coming under attack. "They were mobbed. They were clubbed, they were beaten, stabbed," Mr Netanyahu said in Ottawa, where he was meeting Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
"There was even a report of gunfire and our soldiers had to defend themselves, defend their lives or they would have been killed."
The organisers of the flotilla strongly denied that version of events, but first-hand accounts from passengers were difficult to come by, with activists taken straight to Israeli hospitals or screening by Israeli officials in preparation for summary deportation or trial.
"Those arrested by the Israelis have been given no access to attorneys and have been sent to several prisons," said Greta Berlin, co-founder of the Free Gaza Movement. "We don't know who has been killed or imprisoned or where abouts they are. There has been no information given out at all and Israeli officials have confiscated all mobile phones... Israel does not seem to follow anybody's rules."
At Ashkelon's Barzilai hospital, an injured American from a smaller passenger vessel, was brought into the emergency ward on a stretcher, saying only: "there was some brutality". Asked who had started the violence he replied: "I am non-violent." An injured Greek activist, also from the smaller ship and wearing a neck brace, was asked how he sustained his injury; "pirates" was his perfunctory reply. Three passengers from the Mavi Marmara, thought to be Turks, were later admitted to the hospital without speaking.
The Israeli military insisted that that it had acted with "restraint", opening fire only after its commandos had been attacked with knives, sticks and gunfire from two pistols which had been seized by activists from servicemen. The military said that seven of its personnel had been injured in the operation, two seriously.
Black and white aerial footage released by the Israel Defence Forces in the late afternoon appeared to show passengers crowding round the servicemen and throwing an object which the military identified as a firebomb. A senior Israeli naval officer said most of the dead were Turks, but those on the flotilla also included Americans, Australians, Israelis, Palestinians and a large contingent of Europeans, including an estimated 28 Britons and the Swedish author of the Wallander books, Henning Mankell.
Consular officials in Ashdod were last night attempting to secure access to their arrested nationals as Israeli officials admitted that the death toll of nine could rise.
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, Israel's key Muslim ally in the region, said: "This action, totally contrary to the principles of international law, is inhumane state terrorism." The Turkish ambassador was recalled from Tel Aviv and the government cancelled planned joint military exercises with Israel, as tens of thousands of protesters rallied in the streets of Istanbul, with some trying to storm the Israeli consulate.
Police fired teargas in Athens, where some 3,500 protesters rallied outside the Israeli embassy, chanting "Hands off Gaza" and "Free Palestine" and in Paris, where some of the 2,000 demonstrators hurled stones at the embassy. In London, about 1,000 protesters held a noisy but peaceful march on the Israeli embassy, guarded by a large contingent of police.
Thousands of followers of an anti-US cleric took to the streets in Baghdad. Israel's Arab enemy Syria called for an Arab League meeting. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas condemned the shooting as a "massacre" There were stone throwing protests in the northern Israeli Arab town of Umm el Fahm.
The UN Security Council was last night holding an emergency session on the incident.
In Washington, US President Barack Obama expressed "regret" at the loss of life and urged Mr Netanyahu to establish the full facts of what happened. Footage on YouTube showed Scottish journalist and documentary film maker, Hassan Ghani, 24, one of the Britons on the Turkish vessel, broadcasting for the Iranian backed satellite station PressTV as the commandos took control of the ship. He could be seen declaring: "We've had several injuries here; one is critical. He has been injured in the head and we think he may die if he doesn't receive medical treatment urgently."
British foreign secretary, William Hague issued a statement "deploring" the loss of life. And the international community's Middle East envoy Tony Blair called for a full investigation and said that "we need a different and better way of helping the people of Gaza."
Additional reporting: Sarah Morrison and Billy Kenber
After days of verbal skirmishes with the flotilla, Israeli warships left the naval base at Haifa at around 9pm on Sunday. The three missile boats first intercepted the vessels at around midnight. Israel Defence Forces (IDF) says it issued clear warnings to the vessels to reroute to Ashdod. Activists on board the ships say the Israeli vessels approached them by surprise in international waters.
IDF troops board Mavi Marmara
According to a statement by the Free Gaza movement, Israeli troops rappelled on to the Mavi Marmara ship "under darkness of night" at about 4.30 am. They say the soldiers opened fire immediately after touching down on the deck. The IDF later releases a video it says shows naval personnel being attacked as they landed (and before firing) with stun grenades, fire bombs and metal poles.
Commandos take control
Israeli commandos quickly took control of the vessels, killing at least 10 activists in the process. The IDF later says that it had been forced to use "riot dispersal means including live fire". It points to two activists who were found with pistols with empty magazines said to be evidence that they opened fire. At least four soldiers were injured.
Injured are taken to hospital
As the seized ships were redirected away from Gaza to Ashdod, dozens of injured were taken to hospital, mostly at Barzilai Medical Centre in Ashkelon. Israel says that the passengers will be deported. Family members and journalists were unable to contact them, with mobile and satellite phones apparently switched off or confiscated.
After news of the operation became public, Israel faced swift condemnation from most of the international community. The Foreign Secretary, William Hague, said he "deplored" the killing of civilians, while Turkey, a rare ally in the Muslim world, demanded an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council over the killing of its citizens.
Questions raised by attack on the aid ship
Why was the flotilla headed for the Gaza Strip?
The coalition of activist groups that organised the journey were motivated by anger at what they saw as an unjust blockade on supplies to Gaza. Israel allows about 15,000 tons of aid into Gaza each week, but the UN estimates that about four times as much is needed. The six ships were carrying 10,000 tons of aid, not enough to make a long-term material difference: the broader purpose was to highlight the situation in Gaza and mount pressure on Israel to change its policy.
Why did Israel storm the ships?
Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, insisted that the government "did not want to see confrontation". Israel argues that it is obliged to closely monitor the supplies that go into Gaza to protect its citizens from weapons smuggled in by allies of Hamas, and only boarded after the flotilla refused repeated offers to unload the aid at Ashdod, from where humanitarian supplies could be taken on to Gaza.
Was Israel acting according to the law when it boarded?
An attack in international waters is generally deemed a violation of international law, and Israel was condemned by some countries yesterday on that basis. But while Israel acknowledges that it undertook the operation in international waters, it argues that it is entitled to act against potential threats to its security. Israel has pointed to the precedent of the interception of the Francop, an Iranian weapons ship, 100 miles out to sea last year. Its critics will argue that the flotilla did not pose a comparable threat.
Will Israel face repercussions?
Strained relations with Turkey will take a severe blow, while harsh words from normally reliable supporters such as the UK and the US may give Jerusalem pause. There will be renewed pressure to relax the blockade that the operation was designed to defend.
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