At least nine activists killed during Israeli commando takeover of six vessels 80 nautical miles from Israeli coast.
The aggressive Israeli assault on a civilian aid ship attempting to break a naval block into the Gaza Strip has killed at least nine activists and humanitarians, wounded scores more and has jeopardized Israel-Turkey relations.
Spontaneous protests broke out in a number of Arab towns inside Israel in response to the deadly assault amid rumors that a prominent Israeli Muslim leader had been wounded on one of the six boats. Israeli security forces were on alert nation-wide to head off demonstrations and unrest.
The pre-dawn raid culminated a week-long endeavor by some 800 international activists, most of them from Turkey, to sail 10,000 tons of humanitarian aid for Palestinians into Gaza. Israel had warned the flotilla to divert their cargo to an Israeli port for transfer, but the activists refused.
“We didn’t think the Israeli government would be so stupid as to attack unarmed civilians like this,” spokeswoman for the flotilla Greta Berlin told Israel radio. “Do they think that because they can attack Palestinians indiscriminately they can attack anyone?”
But Israeli officials said that activists aboard the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish passenger boat with some 600 people, violently opposed the boarding of naval commandos who dropped in from helicopters and climbed on from rubber boats.
“We know that the entire campaign was not humanitarian in nature but a provocation try to aid and abet and support Hamas terror organization and indeed try to create a free corridor of terrorist supplies to Gaza and Hamas,” said Deputy Israeli Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon.
Israel’s Defense Minister Ehud Barak said some of the activists on board were connected to the IHH, “a violent and extremist organization, which supports terror organizations under the guise of humanitarian aid.”
After taking control of the six boats, the navy sailed them to the port in Ashdod where the activists would be identified and questioned. The government said they would immediately deport them and that if they refused they would incarcerate them. Some of the people on the flotilla were European legislators and notable human rights activists.
The incident has strained relations between Israel and Turkey, which has supported the attempt by the flotilla of six ships to break the Israeli blockade on Gaza, in place since the June 2007 Hamas takeover of the coastal strip.
The identities of the killed activists were not released, but reports from Turkey said they were all Turkish citizens. In Istanbul, protesters were attempting to storm the Israeli consulate and in Tel Aviv, anti-Turkish Israeli demonstrators were planning a counter-protest in front of the Turkish embassy later on Monday.
Turkey announced it was recalling its envoy to Israel in protest and the action drew a wave of condemnation from across the world. Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who was in Canada and scheduled to meet in Washington Tuesday with President Obama, canceled the meeting and was returning to Israel immediately.
As a result of the incident, Israel’s National Security Council Counter-Terrorism Bureau issued a travel warning against travel to Turkey.
An Israeli army spokesman confirmed that some nine civilian activists on the ships were killed and scores injured as Israeli commandos took over the vessels. The injured were airlifted to hospitals in Israel.
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Israeli army Spokesman Brig.-Gen. Avi Benayahu said that forces along Israel’s border were on alert against possible rocket attacks from Lebanon and Gaza, as well as potential violence in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
Meanwhile, Israel Police have deployed across the country, especially in Israeli-Arab towns, to head off potential rioting by sympathizers with the flotilla. Israeli-Arabs called for a commercial strike, which was partially observed.
“Police are deploying in areas across the country in order to prevent disturbances from taking place,” said Mickey Rosenfeld, spokesman for the Israel Police.
A senior Israeli military official, speaking on condition of anonymity under military guidelines, said three helicopters with 15 Israeli soldiers aboard, and several commando boats approached the boats at about 4 a.m.
An Israeli commando said he descended with ropes and was immediately attacked by a group of people waiting for them.
“They beat us up with metal sticks and knives,” he said, adding, “There was live fire at some point against us.”
He said a group of people pounced on the soldiers and beat them. One soldier had his guns snatched.
“They were shooting at us from below deck.”
He said some of the soldiers were tossed from the top deck to the lower deck by the activists and then jumped in the water to save themselves. Activists grabbed soldiers and tried to hold them hostage, stripping them of their helmets and equipment. He said about 30 activists, all speaking Arabic, had carried out the attack.
“Every serviceman encountered violent reaction,” Benayahu said. “Let’s say they didn’t look like peace activists.”
Benayahu said the incident took place 80 nautical miles off Israel’s coast in international waters.
“This is not humanitarian aid by peace activists, but rather a violent media provocation directed against our forces and which is aimed at embarrassing the government of Israel, which must defend itself against the terrorist Hamas movement controlling Gaza,” Benayahu told Israel Radio.
Initial reports said Sheikh Raid Salah, leader of the Islamic Movement in Israel, had been killed during the Israeli takeover of the boats. This rumor was further fuelled by Hamas Spokesperson Fawzi Barhum who warned that Salah’s death would be considered an assassination.
“At this point we don’t know the reality of what happened to Sheikh Salah,” he told The Media Line. “But if such a programmed assassination happened, we consider it a real violent crime committed by the occupation in order to establish their violent racism against the Palestinians. We condemn this crime and call on the Palestinian Authority to cut all relations with the occupation [forces].”
“All of Gaza’s people are taking to the streets and to the mosques,” he said. “We need immediate attention from the world to support Gaza, to support the Palestinians.”
People across the Gaza Strip converged at the Gaza port and demonstrated. Over 100 fishing boats were prearing to sail into the sea to show solidarity.
Barhum warned that should Sheikh Salah have been killed, Hamas would view it as an intentional assassination.
In Ashdod, a group of Israeli activists held a solidarity rally against the military assault.
“We don’t know what kind of resistance there was on the boats – clearly there was – but to respond with deadly force to people with sticks and knives is a form of piracy,” Ya’acov Manor, the organizer of the protest told The Media Line. “There was simply no need in the first place to send Israeli forces onto these ships and at this most important time we want to show solidarity, so we are trying to center ourselves in a place where the ships can see us or our signs as they come into port.”