Israeli Raid On Gaza Flotilla Draws Anger
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
In the Eastern Mediterranean today, the Israeli navy stopped a flotilla of pro-Palestinian activists bound for the Gaza Strip. Details are still murky, but something went terribly wrong. Israeli government officials say nine activists were killed in the early morning hours and dozens more wounded.
The fighting happened aboard one of six vessels chartered by the protestors -the Turkish registered Marmara.
Sheera Frenkel reports from the Israeli port of Ashdod where the ships were towed after today's incident.
Unidentified Man: Step back and take your things.
SHEERA FRENKEL: This was the scene on board the Marmara this morning as pro-Palestinian activists clashed with Israeli naval commandos.
Unidentified Man: (unintelligible) this is important announcement.
FRENKEL: A message from the captain implores the passengers to go back to their seats.
Unidentified Man: Don't show resistance. They are using live ammunition. We cannot protect ourselves.
FRENKEL: Video footage shot by the activists shows Israeli commandos repelling from Black Hawk helicopters onto the deck of the Marmara, while others climb aboard from Israeli naval boats.
There was a confrontation, and chaotic footage shows fighting between the soldiers and activists on board the ship. Several men can be seen striking at the soldiers with batons and other objects. Then the video cuts to wounded being carried across the deck.
IDF officials say the fighting lasted for 90 minutes. More than 12 hours later, the Marmara was towed into Ashdod. Of the six boats that took part in the Gaza-bound flotilla, the IDF says that the Marmara was the only one where a violent confrontation took place.
IDF spokeswoman Avital Leibovitch says that the small group of activists were violent and had prepared to lynch the Israeli soldiers.
Major AVITAL LEIBOVITCH (Head, International Press Branch, Israel Defense Forces): They waited for them. They planned this. They stacked sticks, knives and different kinds of metal objects. It's more than an attack. I describe it as a lynch because when you have one Navy Seal and 10 activists jumping on him trying to break his arms and legs, for me, it's a lynch.
FRENKEL: The violence here caught everyone off guard. For several weeks, the Israeli military has been on alert for the flotilla, whose organizers said they intended to deliver relief supplies to the Palestinians of the Gaza Strip, who have been under an Israeli blockade for the past three years. The six vessels were loaded with some 10,000 tons of aid, including cement and other building materials.
Israeli defense experts have questioned why Shayetet 13, the Israeli equivalent of Navy Seals, was sent to confront the Marmara.
Yaakov Katz, a military correspondent for the Jerusalem Post paper, explained that this unit is more commonly used for covert operations behind enemy lines.
Mr. YAAKOV KATZ (Military Correspondent, Jerusalem Post): Their expertise is in sabotaging enemy ports and being able to board enemy ships or come by sea to enemy territory. Their expertise is not in crowd control.
FRENKEL: Israeli journalist Ron Banishy(ph) was on board one of the Israeli naval ships. In a written account, he describes how the commandos were ill prepared to meet the violent resistance they faced. He said that Israeli soldiers were initially armed with paintball guns, but later returned with firearms. At least two guns were wrested away from Israeli soldiers according to the IDF.
Amir Buhbut, a military analyst for the Hebrew-language daily Maariv, said that the Israeli military could have taken a number of steps to prevent the violence.
Mr. AMIR BUHBUT (Military Analyst, Maariv): (Through Translator) They could have used the security force that is more accustomed to dealing with civilian protests. They could have used other deterrent methods. There were all sorts of things they could have done to prevent this violence and damage to both sides. Israel clearly didn't want this level of provocation.
FRENKEL: Israel is now struggling to control the diplomatic crisis over the incident. It is said that everyone on board the ships will receive medical treatment in Israeli hospitals and that aid will be inspected and delivered to Gaza, but the fallout may already be too great.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hurried home from a visit to Canada, after canceling a planned meeting with President Barack Obama in Washington Tuesday. It was supposed to be a sign of warming relations between the two governments.
As night fell in Israel, the hundreds aboard the Marmara began to disembark in Ashdod, where tents have already been set up to process them and to begin deportation proceedings. At least 16 have already refused to be deported and have been sent to Israeli prisons.
A spokeswoman for the Free Gaza Movement said that their fight will continue for days or even weeks to come.
For NPR News, I'm Sheera Frenkel in Ashdod.
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