Israelis react to the confrontation at sea.
[Ashdod, Israel] It was an inconsequential morning in Ashdod, a sleepy port city on the southern end of Israel’s Mediterranean coast. The sky was clear, the air warm, and the morning opened with a light, calming breeze.
Tens of thousands of workers headed to the port and another few thousand more to the power plant, coal terminal, oil refinery, pharmaceutical plant and nearby factories in Israel’s fifth largest city and largest port..
Then the news came that overnight Israeli naval commandos had killed at least nine people and wounded scores more in a pre-dawn raid of a flotilla of international ships heading to a blockaded Gaza with humanitarian aid supplies for the Palestinians. At least seven Israeli commandos were also injured by a mob on one boat attempting to prevent its takeover.
The world was quick to condemn Israel’s action. Even in Israel, as the navy towed in the six captured boats to the port of Ashdod, Israeli demonstrators arrived to protest their own government’s heavy hand.
As some of the 680 activists, mostly Turks, were being questioned before their deportation, and the 10,000 tons of humanitarian aid unloaded to be transferred to Gaza over land, Ashdod was suddenly transformed into the political epicenter of the Middle East.
Large contingents of police, army and naval officers were deployed to the city. Dozens of journalists arrived within an hour, and some 200 left-wing protesters from Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem showed up waving signs saying: ‘LET THE BOATS THROUGH‘ and ‘FREE GAZA‘ and ‘STOP ISRAELI PIRACY’ across the city’s northern beach.
“We’re sick and tired of living in a militaristic state,” Tali Berglass, a student from Kfar Sava told The Media Line while holding a sign reading ‘The Israeli Army is the most immoral, terrorist organization on earth.”
“These people came with boats to bring very basic things that Israel has not allowed to get to Gaza. They didn’t come to fight with the Israeli army,” she said. “I can’t understand the thinking behind it. I mean, soldiers come with guns, attacking people, then blaming the people for defending themselves.”
“This is a catastrophe and shows once again how the Israeli army does whatever it wants, just killing without regard for human rights,” Hasan Masre, a Palestinian Israeli from Taybe told The Media Line. “The army says they were attacked by kitchen knives, sticks and two stolen guns. First of all I don’t believe that. But even if it was true, this is the best unit in the navy.”
“As soon as we heard about this attack this morning we knew we had to act, and we came to show our solidarity and support to peace and human rights activists being dragged into this port,” Eilat Maoz, the general coordinator of the Israeli Coalition of Women for Peace, which helped organize the Ashdod demonstration, told The Media Line. “We have no reason to assume the army version of what happened is true because the army put up an electronic smokescreen to block all media and electronic communication from the boats. If the army’s version of what happened is correct, why was there a problem to allow the passengers on the boats to speak?”
Israel is understood to have erected an electronic smokescreen around the flotilla during the assault and journalists were kept out of the entire Ashdod port area on Monday. In what some may describe as an ironic twist, Ashdod is home to Elta, an Israel Aerospace Industries subsidiary that produces electronic warfare systems.
Many of the protesters were impressed by the relatively strong showing of leftists, who have seen their support dwindle.
“We don’t usually get this many people at protests but I think it woke people up,” Ran Abdel Hail, a Palestinian Israeli from Jaffa told The Media Line. “There were many scenarios that could have happened, but killing peace activists that just came to make a statement? Nobody expected this, it’s really unbelievable.”
“This really shocked people and woke them up,” Masre added. “Lots of us just stopped everything and came to show our opinion.”
“Within an hour in the early morning we were able to mobilize 200 people who have jobs, who have school, who were willing to take a break from their normal lives in order to come here and to say this is not in our name, it must stop,” Inna Michaeli, another of the protest organizers, told The Media Line. “There are many Israeli’s here that disagree completely with the actions of our government and we do not think that killing people, peace activists, contributes to anything positive or anything other than death and destruction.”
There are many other Israelis, however, who think quite the opposite, and the protest was broken up mid-afternoon by two carloads of local Ashdod workers, all recent Israeli army veterans, infuriated by the signs.
“Go home!” they scream. “The Israeli army is defending the country, you should be ashamed!”
“Israeli soldiers went to the ship and were stabbed with knives, with guns!” Lior Zilberman, an Ashdod port worker told The Media Line. “These protesters are too naive. They should live in the 60’s with the flowers… Those guys don’t go to the military. Those guys have no friends who died in the military.”
Zilberman said it was Israel’s duty to check the ships for arms.
“You never know until you check,” he said.
Smoking cigarettes, holding flags and singing nationalists songs for the cameras, the counter-protesters ripped up the protesters’ signs and screamed at them until they left the area. Israeli border police, standing a few steps away from the incident, did not interfere.
A similar situation occurred at Givat Yona (Jona’s Hill), where right wing supporters of Israel’s actions at sea began rallying beside a temporary information center set up by the Israeli army and police.
When protesters noticed a female Arab Israeli taking pictures of the rally, along with dozens of other onlookers, the woman was singled out, surrounded by a few dozen protesters, screamed at, spat upon, and told to go home. The police who were on hand to explain preparations for the potential response to the overnight assault did nothing.
“Why did they come here in the first place,” one policeman told The Media Line, in reference to the Arab woman and her friends, when asked why the police had not interfered.
“We didn’t come to protest and we didn’t intend to hurt them, just to take down these embarrassing signs,” Modi ElMaliach, an Ashdod laborer who joined the counter-protestors told The Media Line. “We saw a sign that says that the Israeli army is a terror organization and me and all my best friends serve in the Israeli army, we do our best, and you can’t say something like this here.”
“We did the work. The area is now cleared out and I’m glad they left,” he said. “Ashdod is strong and we’ll continue to be strong.”
As the sun set on Ashdod, its beach was left with two ripped up halves of a former protest sign. The part reading ‘The Israeli Army is the most immoral…’ lay on one side of the beach, while ‘terrorist organization on earth’ lay on the other.