Activist's Account Of Raid Differs From Israeli Version

One of the passengers on the Marmara, raided Monday by Israeli naval commandos in international waters off the coast of the Gaza Strip, gives her account of the battle on board the Turkish ship that left nine dead and dozens wounded. It differs sharply from Israeli accounts. The pro-Palestinian activists who organized the flotilla to deliver aid to Gaza say they have succeeded in putting the Israeli blockade of the coastal territory back in the headlines.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

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And I'm Robert Siegel.

Hundreds of pro-Palestinian activists remain in detention today in Israel awaiting deportation. They were traveling in a flotilla yesterday headed for the Gaza Strip, a flotilla that attempted to break through an Israeli blockade. That attempt, of course, ended in confusion and tragedy - nine activists were killed. But, why?

Eyewitness accounts are now emerging from passengers aboard the Marmara, where activists clashed with Israeli commandos. One of those accounts comes from a protester who avoided arrest because she has parliamentary immunity.

NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Jerusalem.

PETER KENYON: The vast majority of the activists still in Israeli custody have not been able to share their stories. But Haneen Zoubi, a member of the Israeli Knesset, could not be deported and could not be charged because of her legislative immunity, so she went home to Nazareth to tell her story.

A petite woman with short, dark hair and glasses, Zoubi spoke in Arabic, Hebrew and English. She said some time after 4:00 a.m. yesterday while onboard the Turkish-registered Marmara, she heard other ships nearby and a helicopter above. She heard shots, but could not be certain who was firing. After about 10 minutes, she saw three bodies.

Israeli accounts of the boarding stressed that the commandos fired only in self-defense and then only at the legs of the activists. Zoubi's account contradicts that. When pressed by reporters about the bullet wounds she had seen, she pointed to her side, then her chest and then twice to her head.

Ms. HANEEN ZOUBI (Member, Knesset): No, no, I saw some here, some here, two here. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I saw the first two, but this - it was here and here. Yeah, that I saw. This is my honor.

KENYON: Although, Zoubi was harsh in her criticism of Israel in her statement, she limited her assertions to what she saw herself. Significantly, because of her position on the ship's second deck, she couldn't see the area of the top deck where the Israeli commandos landed.

When told that the commandos spoke of being beaten with metal rods and shot at with their own weapons, she said only an international investigation could get to the bottom of that. But she also said that Israel was being highly selective in the videos and statements it was choosing to release.

Ms. ZOUBI: If I had had documentation about the Israeli agents, it surely has investigation and recommendations of all the dead people. Publish them.

KENYON: Audio released by the Israeli military could hardly paint a more different picture of the events. A member of the naval unit that boarded the Marmara, identified only by the initial R according to military rules, said the first wave of commandos that landed on the deck was armed only with paintball guns and was not prepared for the violent reception he described.

R (Shayetet 13): (Through Translator) They started to hit me with metal bars. In defending myself, I guess I broke my arm. At that point, I was without a gun with live ammo. Everyone that came down was without a gun.

KENYON: Analysts say the contrasting versions should be a sobering reminder that the uproar over the aid ship fatalities is taking place in the absence of a clear understanding of what took place.

Political scientist Menachem Klein, who has criticized Israel's Gaza blockade in the past, argues that if this aid had gotten through, it would have been a one-day news story. But now he says the activists have achieved a key goal.

Dr. MENACHEM KLEIN (Department of Political Science, Bar-Ilan University): Now, with this confrontation, the damage is huge to Israel, even it gives a great push to delegitimize the Israeli policy - it's not only Israeli - the Quartet policy together with the Egyptians is a strategic failure. It is indeed a strategic failure.

KENYON: The Quartet of international peacemakers is wondering what this will mean for peace talks. For its part, Egypt moved quickly to distance itself from Israel by announcing a humanitarian opening of its border with Gaza.

As international anger builds, anger is also growing among Israelis with painful memories of thousands of Hamas rockets landing in southern Israeli towns. They will want to know if the Gaza blockade, a policy they see as a security measure and that much of the world sees as collective punishment, is about to be undone by what Klein calls a rush to confrontation with a boatful of activists.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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