Israeli commandos intercepted Gaza-bound aid ships this morning, and at least 10 pro-Palestinian activists on board were killed in bloodshed that plunged Israel into a diplomatic crisis. Israel’s military says its troops came under gunfire and knife attack during the takeover.
“Our initial findings show that at least 10 convoy participants were killed,” an Israeli military spokesman said, adding that at least four soldiers were wounded. The convoy of aid and foreign activists had set off in international waters off Cyprus yesterday in defiance of the Israeli-led blockade of Gaza and warnings that it would be intercepted.
Israel had expected the operation to end without bloodshed and had prepared tents in an Israeli port for detainees. The incident created a diplomatic storm with long-time Muslim ally Turkey, whose flag some of the six ships were flying. The Turkish government said it “strongly protested” the military action, calling the interception unacceptable. “Israel will have to endure the consequences of this behaviour” a Turkish Foreign Ministry statement said.
Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said Israel had not wanted a violent confrontation. “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,” he said. “Unfortunately this group decided on confrontation. They decided on violence…And when our navy had to intercept, our young servicemen were attacked with live ammunition.”
Israel has said it was determined to maintain its blockade of the Gaza Strip, a territory of 1.5 million people that is controlled by Hamas Islamists opposed to US-mediated Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Israel’s Western allies have been critical of the embargo on the impoverished enclave, which the Jewish state says is aimed at preventing arms supplies from reaching Hamas by sea. It has previously halted such activist ships, although some others have reached the Gaza Strip before.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Fatah faction lost control of the Gaza Strip in fighting with Hamas in 2007, declared three days of mourning in the Palestinian territories. Captured ships were sailing towards Israel’s southern Mediterranean port of Ashdod, Israeli media said. “How could the Israeli military attack civilians like this?” asked Greta Berlin, a spokeswoman for the Free Gaza Movement that organised the convoy. “Do they think that because they can attack Palestinians indiscriminately they can attack anyone?
The flotilla was organised, among others, by a Turkish human rights organisation. Turkey had urged Israel to allow it safe passage and said the 10 000 tonnes of aid the convoy was carrying was humanitarian.
Turkey, long Israel’s best Muslim ally in a hostile Middle East, was highly critical of Israel’s attack on Gaza 18 months ago, in which 1400 Palestinians were killed. Relations between the two states are now distinctly chilly and bloodshed at sea will do nothing to improve them. The European Union called for an enquiry into the deaths aboard the aid ships and demanded Israel allow the free flow of humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip.
“On behalf of the European Union (High Representative Catherine Ashton) demands a full enquiry about the circumstances in which this happened…she calls for an immediate, sustained and unconditional opening of the crossing for the flow of humanitarian aid, commercial goods and persons to and from Gaza,” it said.
France24 television aired video of a woman in a Muslim headdress holding a stretcher with a large bloodstain on it. Below her lay a man, apparently injured, in a blanket. CNN showed pictures of a commando apparently rappelling down a rope and clashing with a man wielding a stick. Other TV images showed what appeared to be rubber boarding launches.
The United Nations and Western powers have urged Israel to ease its restrictions on Gaza to prevent a humanitarian crisis. They have been urging Israel to let in concrete and steel to allow for post-war reconstruction. Israel says food, medicine and medical equipment are allowed in regularly.