Mustafa Ozer/AFP/Getty Images
Turkish demonstrators wave Palestinian flags and shout slogans during an anti-Israeli protest Monday on Taksim Square in Istanbul.
Turkish demonstrators wave Palestinian flags and shout slogans during an anti-Israeli protest Monday on Taksim Square in Istanbul. Mustafa Ozer/AFP/Getty Images
Israeli naval commandos stormed a flotilla of ships carrying aid and hundreds of pro-Palestinian activists to the blockaded Gaza Strip on Monday, killing at least nine passengers in a predawn raid that set off worldwide condemnation and a diplomatic crisis.
Officials in Israel said the elite naval units were attacked as they attempted to board one of the ships, and that the commandos used live fire only when they felt their lives were threatened. Dozens of passengers and at least five Israeli soldiers were wounded in the confrontation in international waters.
The U.N. Security Council is calling for an impartial investigation of Israel's deadly commando raid on ships taking humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip and condemning the "acts" that resulted in the loss of at least nine lives.
After an emergency meeting and marathon negotiations, the 15 council members agreed early Tuesday on a presidential statement that was weaker than that initially demanded by the Palestinians, Arabs and Turkey.
They had called for condemnation of the attack by Israeli forces "in the strongest terms" and "an independent international investigation."
The Palestinians and Arabs, backed by a number of council members, also called for Israel to lift the blockade on Gaza, immediately release the ships and humanitarian activists, and allow them to deliver their goods. The council later moved into closed consultations to consider possible action.
The flotilla raid triggered outrage in the Arab world and across Europe, as many of the passengers were from European countries. It also strained already tense relations with Israel's longtime Muslim ally Turkey, the unofficial sponsor of the mission, and drew more attention to the plight of Gaza's 1.5 million people.
Israel called the violence "pre-planned" and accused one of the Turkish organizing groups of having what it said were "terrorist ties to Hamas," the Islamist Palestinian group that runs Gaza.
Netanyahu Scuttles White House Visit
Turkish and Arab officials said the incident could have grave repercussions for Israel. Turkey announced it was withdrawing its ambassador to Israel, canceling three joint military drills and calling on the U.N. Security Council to convene in an emergency session about Israel.
Egypt summoned the Israeli ambassador in Cairo after the Israeli raid, NPR's Peter Kenyon reported from Cairo. The Israeli ambassadors in Sweden, Spain, Denmark and Greece were summoned for meetings, and the French foreign minister called for an investigation.
Protests erupted around the Arab world.
A crowd in Istanbul tried to storm the Israeli Consulate, while Palestinians hurled bottles and stones at Israeli soldiers. In Jordan, hundreds urged their government to follow Turkey's lead and cut ties with Israel. Dozens of angry students in Tehran pelted the U.N. offices with stones and eggs, burning Israeli flags and chanting, "death to Israel" and "down with U.S." In Baghdad, an estimated 3,000 Shiite followers of the anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr shouted, "Death, death to Israel!" and "Death, death to America!"
Riot police used tear gas to drive back hundreds of protesters demonstrating outside the Israeli Embassy in Paris. There were also demonstrations in Rome, Sweden, Norway, Cyprus and more than 20 cities in Greece.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas condemned the Israeli "aggression," declared three days of mourning across the West Bank and called on the U.N. Security Council and Arab League to hold emergency sessions on the incident.
Ismail Haniyeh, leader of the rival Hamas government in Gaza, condemned the "brutal" Israeli attack and called on U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon to intervene.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called off a planned White House meeting with President Obama on Tuesday in order to deal with the crisis. Both leaders agreed to reschedule the meeting on the Middle East peace process"at the first opportunity," according to a statement from the White House. It also said Obama expressed "deep regret" over the loss of life and cited "the importance of learning all the facts and circumstances" behind the incident.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak expressed regret for the deaths but blamed the violence on organizers of the flotilla, calling the effort a "political provocation" by anti-Israel forces. Israeli security forces were on alert across the country, and the government advised Israelis to avoid travel to Turkey.
There were conflicting accounts of what happened early Monday, with activists claiming the Israelis fired first, and Israel insisting that its forces fired in self-defense. Communications to the ships were cut shortly after the raid began, and activists were kept away from reporters after their boats were towed to the Israeli port of Ashdod.
Dozens of people were evacuated to hospitals with injuries, and at least one of the boats involved in the flotilla has been stopped before reaching Gaza, said Sheera Frenkel, reporting for NPR from Ashdod.
"Video footage that we've seen from the boats shows a number of [Israeli] navy commandos rappelling from Black Hawk helicopters onto the boats," Frenkel said. "The soldiers are heard calling out to the flotilla to stop or prepare to be boarded, and afterward, you see armed soldiers on board the ships. The footage becomes very, very chaotic at that point. You see activists wearing orange life vests that are running across the deck carrying what appear to be wounded people."
Activists scuffled with the commandos and are seen throwing an object the military identified as a firebomb.
A commando who spoke to reporters on a naval vessel off the coast, identified only as "A," said he and his comrades were taken off guard by a group of Arabic-speaking men when they rappelled onto the deck. He said some of the soldiers were stripped of their helmets and equipment, and thrown from the top deck to the lower deck, and that some had even jumped overboard to save themselves. At one point, one of the activists seized one of the soldiers' weapons and opened fire, the commando said.
A high-ranking Israeli naval official displayed a box confiscated from the boat containing switchblades, slingshots, metal balls and metal bats. "We prepared [the soldiers] to deal with peace activists, not to fight," he said. Most of the dead were Turkish, he added.
Turkey's NTV network showed activists beating one commando with sticks as he landed on one of the boats. Dr. Arnon Afek, deputy director of Chaim Sheba Medical Center outside Tel Aviv, said two commandos were brought in with gunshot wounds. Another had serious head wounds from an unspecified blow, Afek added.
Activists said Israeli naval commandos stormed the ships after ordering them to stop in international waters, about 80 miles from Gaza's coast.
A reporter with the pan-Arab satellite channel Al-Jazeera, who was sailing on the Turkish ship leading the flotilla, said the Israelis fired at the vessel before boarding it, wounding the captain.
"These savages are killing people here, please help," a Turkish television reporter said.
A video broadcast a Turkish website that showed pandemonium on board one of the vessels ended with a voice shouting in Hebrew, "Everybody shut up!"
At a news conference in Tel Aviv, Israel's military chief of staff and navy commander said all of the violence was centered on the lead boat, the Mavi Marmara, which was carrying 600 of the 700 activists. Troops took over the five other boats without incident, military chief Gabi Ashkenazi said.
"To me it is clear without a doubt, judging by what I saw and what I heard in the first reports from the soldiers, that in light of the danger to human life this violence required the use of weapons," Ashkenazi said.
Robin Churchill, a professor of international law at the University of Dundee in Scotland, said the Israeli commandos boarded the ship outside of Israel's territorial waters.
"As far as I can see, there is no legal basis for boarding these ships," Churchill said.
The Free Gaza Movement
This is the ninth time that the Free Gaza movement has tried to ship in humanitarian aid to Gaza since August 2008. The flotilla of three cargo ships and three passenger ships carrying 10,000 tons of aid and 700 activists was carrying items that Israel bars from reaching Gaza, like cement and other building materials.
Free Gaza, an international group of pro-Palestinian activists, claims the blockade imposed three years ago after the militant Islamic Hamas group overran Gaza is unjust and a violation of international law.
Organizers included people affiliated with the International Solidarity Movement, a pro-Palestinian group that often sends international activists into battle zones, and the IHH, a Turkish aid group that Israel accuses of having terrorist links.
Israel has allowed ships through five times, but has blocked them from entering Gaza waters since a three-week military offensive against Gaza's Hamas rulers in January 2009.
The latest flotilla was the largest to date.