Israeli forces storm Gaza aid flotilla; 16 dead

Up to 16 people have been killed as Israeli naval commandos boarded aid ships bound for the Gaza Strip on May 30. The six-ship aid convoy led by a Turkish vessel with 600 people on board set sail for Gaza from waters off Cyprus the previous day in defiance of Israel’s blockade of the territory. Footage from the flotilla’s lead vessel, the Mavi Marmara, shows armed Israeli troops boarding the ship and helicopters flying overhead. The BBC reports that the incident took place in international waters.

Al Jazeera’s Jamal Elshayyal, on board the Mavi Marmara, said Israeli troops had used live ammunition during the operation. Israeli Army Radio said soldiers opened fire “after confronting those on board carrying sharp objects.” However, the Free Gaza Movement, organizers of the flotilla, said the troops opened fire as soon as they boarded the ships. They also said the ships were now being towed to the Israeli town of Haifa.

An Israeli religious medical service, ZAKA, said seven people have been admitted to hospital in Haifa, Israel’s main naval base, one of them in a serious condition. Vice premier Silvan Shalom told Israel Radio that Israeli forces will soon issue a report. Israeli officials said overnight the navy told the activists by radio to turn back toward Cyprus or head for the Israeli port of Ashdod to unload the 10,000 tons of aid, which Israel would then transfer to the Gaza Strip.

The hundreds of activists on board the flotilla include a Nobel laureate Mairead Corrigan Maguire from Northern Ireland, several European legislators, and a large delegation of Turkish activists. Turkey had urged Israel to allow the convoy safe passage. Israel said it would prevent the convoy from reaching Gaza.

Thousands of Turkish protesters tried to storm the Israeli consulate in Istanbul as the news of the incident broke. The protesters shouted “Damn Israel” as police blocked them. Turkey is also reported to have summoned the Israeli ambassador to lodge a protest. (Australian Broadcasting Corporation, AlJazeera, UKPA, BBC World Service, May 30)

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  1. What happened in flotilla incident?
    The latest media accounts are claiming nine dead, and five soldiers hurt—and raising Israeli assertions that the activists were armed and fired at the troops. “Our soldiers had to defend themselves, defend their lives or they would have been killed,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said. Netanyahu has canceled his scheduled meeting at the White House with President Obama to deal with the crisis.

    Each side has released its own video of the incident, each portraying the other as the aggressor. While the Israeli-released video shows metal pipes that the activists supposedly used as weapons, it does not show any firearms.

    Israeli Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Danny Ayalon called the incident an “outrageous provocation” and claimed passengers aboard the ships had links to al-Qaeda.

    UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for a “full investigation” into the bloodshed. “I condemn this violence,” he said. (NY Daily News, May 31)

  2. Did Israel try to sink flotilla vessel?
    An Israeli warship threatened to sink Captain Huseyin Tokalak’s ship before commandos boarded the Turkish-flagged Gazze and trained their guns on him and his crew.

    “They pointed two guns to the head of each of us,” Tokalak told a press conference in Istanbul after being released from Israeli custody. They were 68 miles outside Israeli territorial waters when the convoy was confronted by the Israeli ships, Tokalak said. Using a loudspeaker, Tokalak told the approaching craft that his ship was in international waters and carried nothing illegal. He said the Israelis responded by threatening to open fire and sink them.

    There were no casualties on Tokalak’s vessel, but nine activists were killed when the Israeli commandos apparently met resistance as they boarded the Mavi Marmara, the lead ship in a six-strong convoy organised by a Turkish Islamic charity, the Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief (IHH). (IOL, June 1)

  3. Propaganda wars in flotilla attack
    Michael B. Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the US, charges in a June 2 New York Times op-ed:

    Israel discovered spent bullet cartridges on the Mavi Marmara that are of a caliber not used by the Israeli commandos, some of whom suffered gunshot wounds. Also found on the boat were propaganda clips showing passengers “injured” by Israeli forces; these videos, however, were filmed during daylight, hours before the nighttime operation occurred.

    But a blogger on notes:

    The authenticity of photographs linked to the May 31 Israel Defense Force interception of the Free Gaza flotilla is being called into question…. [A] number of blogs are arguing that there is evidence indicating some of the photographs were taken years before the IDF stopped the ships.

    Writers such as the Morocco-based “Ibn Kafka” are pointing to the photographs’ date and time stamps, which can be seen along with the photographs on the Israeli ministry of foreign affair’s Flickr page.

    Kafka writes that a photograph of bullet-proof vests was taken in February 2007, that a photograph of an axe was taken in 2003, and so on.

    However, as a minority of readers have noted in the comments section of Kafka’s site, it is possible that the early time stamps on the photographs are merely the result of incorrectly programmed cameras.

    Meanwhile, hundreds of detained flotilla activists have returned from Israel to Turkey, where they have received a hero’s welcome. (NPR, June 3)

  4. Israeli commandos killed journalist covering their crime: report
    From Middle East Monitor, June 4:

    A journalist covering the Gaza Freedom Flotilla was shot and killed by the Israeli commandos as he photographed their crime. Cevdet Kiliclar was one of 60 journalists on board the Mavi Marmara to provide accurate accounts of the Flotilla.

    According to the activists on the main ship, when the Israeli commandos fired at them, Mr. Kiliclar photographed the incident, at which point one of the soldiers shot him in the head. He died instantly. Forensic evidence suggests that the journalist was shot at very close range. This account was verified by British activist Kevin Ovenden when he arrived in Istanbul on Thursday. The journalist, said Mr. Ovenden, had his camera to his eyes and was shot in the forehead; the bullet tore away the back of his skull.

  5. Israeli MK on aid ship refutes government claims
    From Middle East Online, June 4:

    An Arab member of the Israeli parliament who was on board the international flotilla that was attacked on Monday as it tried to take humanitarian aid to Gaza accused Israel yesterday of intending to kill peace activists as a way to deter future convoys.

    Haneen Zoubi [Balad Party] said Israeli naval vessels had surrounded the flotilla’s flagship, the Mavi Marmara, and fired on it a few minutes before commandos abseiled from a helicopter directly above them.

    Terrified passengers had been forced off the deck when water was sprayed at them. She said she was not aware of any provocation or resistance by the passengers, who were all unarmed.

    She added that within minutes of the raid beginning, three bodies had been brought to the main room on the upper deck in which she and most other passengers were confined. Two had gunshot wounds to the head, in what she suggested had been executions.

    Two other passengers slowly bled to death in the room after Israeli soldiers ignored messages in Hebrew she had held up at the window calling for medical help to save them. She said she saw seven other passengers seriously wounded.

    “Israel had days to plan this military operation,” she told a press conference in Nazareth. “They wanted many deaths to terrorise us and to send a message that no future aid convoys should try to break the siege of Gaza.”

    Released early yesterday by police, apparently because of her parliamentary immunity, she said she was speaking out while most of the hundreds of other peace activists were either being held by Israel for deportation or were under arrest.

    Three other leaders of Israel’s large Palestinian Arab minority, including Sheikh Raed Salah, a spiritual leader, were arrested as their ships docked in the southern port of Ashdod. Lawyers said that under Israeli law they could be held and questioned for up to 30 days without being charged.

    Contradicting Israeli claims, Ms Zoubi said a search by the soldiers after they took control of the Marmara discovered no arms or other weapons.

    It was vital, she added, that the world demand an independent UN inquiry to find out what had happened on the ship rather than allow Israel to carry out a “whitewash” with its own military investigation.

  6. IDF: “mercenaries” provoked flotilla violence
    From the Jerusalem Post, June 4:

    The IDF has identified one of the passengers aboard the Mavi Marmara , which navy commandos commandeered earlier this week, as the ringleader of a group of mercenaries who were recruited from a city in northwest Turkey, according to new details from the military’s ongoing investigation of the Gaza flotilla.

    The IDF identified a group of about 50 men – of the 700 on board – who were well-trained and were stationed throughout the ship, mostly on the upper deck, where they laid an ambush for the IDF soldiers who rappelled onto the deck from helicopters.

    The members of this violent group were not carrying identity cards or passports. Instead, each of them had an envelope in his pocket with about $10,000 in cash. The defense establishment suspects the funding for the mercenaries may have come from elements within the Turkish government.

  7. Flotilla attack propaganda wars redux
    From IPS, June 7, emphasis added:

    Beatings, Abuse, Doctored Evidence Emerge
    RAMALLAH — Although Israel successfully controlled news of its deadly commando raid on the Free Gaza (FG) flotilla during the first crucial 48 hours of media coverage, emerging evidence from witnesses and survivors is challenging the Israeli government’s version of events.

    These include claims of medical treatment being withheld; beatings and abuse of passengers who never resisted; the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) doctoring audio and selectively editing videos.

    Furthermore, allegations of a possible shoot-to-kill policy, amidst autopsies revealing repeated gun shots to the heads of the victims, are also part of an emerging pattern.

    One of the first targets of Israeli commandos raiding the FG flotilla was the international media. Photographers were attacked, and journalists had their video, audio and other communications equipment confiscated. The equipment has still not been returned.

    “It was clear that Israel wanted to control the media coverage of the situation from the very beginning,” Huwaida Arraf, FG’s chairwoman, told IPS.

    Approximately 60 journalists from around the globe were on board the FG flotilla. They were amongst the last to be released by the Israelis.

    Israeli authorities denied other media access to the imprisoned journalists and activists during the entire period they were incarcerated. Reporters were also prevented from speaking to the FG activists when they were deported from Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International airport.

    The IDF imposed a media blackout on the wounded being interviewed in Israeli hospitals, with soldiers stationed in hospital wards to enforce the ban. Journalists trying to enter Gaza to cover the raid were turned back by the Israeli authorities at the Erez crossing.

    Meanwhile, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has denounced Israel’s editing and distribution of footage it confiscated from foreign journalists aboard the FG flotilla.

    CPJ refers to claims by the Foreign Press Association (FPA) in Israel that the military “is selectively using footage to bolster its claims that commandos opened fire only after being attacked.

    In another incident, the IDF had to clarify and correct another audio tape it released to the media after questions were raised as to its authenticity.

    In the audio one of the “activists” on board the FG allegedly tells the Israelis, amongst other things, to “go back to Auschwitz” in what appears to be a fake accent from the United States’ deep south. The “activist” is also heard telling the Israelis: “We are helping Arabs go against the US. Don’t forget 9/11 guys.”

    The IDF also claimed that the voice of Arraf was recorded on the Mavi Marmara, the boat where the activists were shot dead. However, she was on a different boat, the Challenger 1.

    “There were no Americans from the south on the flotilla. Furthermore, the only people to communicate with the Israelis other than myself were the captains,” Arraf told IPS.

    “One of them was British, two were Greek, two Turkish and one Algerian and they acted in a very professional manner. I was near the VHF radio during the entire period of communication with the IDF and none of those alleged slurs were made,” added Arraf.

    However, despite the IDF’s retraction/correction, discrepancies remain even in the edited IDF audio which was released five days after the original one. The alleged slurs about Auschwitz and 9/11 remain.

    From the Committee to Protect Journalists, June 3:

    CPJ denounces Israel’s use of footage seized in flotilla raid
    New York — The Committee to Protect Journalists denounces Israel’s editing and distribution of footage confiscated from foreign journalists aboard the Gaza-bound flotilla that was raided on Monday.

    On Wednesday, the Israel Defense Forces spokesman’s office released edited portions of confiscated video on its YouTube channel, where the footage was labeled as “captured.” The Foreign Press Association in Israel, which represents hundreds of foreign correspondents in Israel, called the use a “clear violation of journalistic ethics and unacceptable” and warned news outlets to “treat the material with appropriate caution.”

    CPJ called on the Israeli government to immediately return all equipment, notes, and footage confiscated from journalists. “Israel has confiscated journalistic material and then manipulated it to serve its interests,” said CPJ Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator Mohamed Abdel Dayem. “It must cease this practice without delay, and return all property seized from journalists who were covering this legitimate news event.”

    Journalists have complained of mistreatment during the raid. Al-Jazeera cameraman Issam Zaatar told the Qatar-based channel that as he was filming the raid an Israeli soldier struck him with a stun gun. He said he suffered a broken arm and his camera was damaged during the altercation.

    There’s plenty more if you want to read it…

  8. Israel launches internal military probe of flotilla attack
    The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) on June 7 launched an internal investigation of the May 31 Israeli raid on several Turkish ships bound for the blockaded Gaza Strip. Chief of the General Staff Gabi Ashkenazi named Major General Giora Island to head an internal team of experts to investigate the flotilla operation. The team is made up of professionals outside of the chain of command of this specific operation. The investigatory unit will study the outcomes of the incident, “establish lessons,” and present its findings by July 4. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the nation’s seven senior ministers also decided on Monday to establish a panel of jurists to investigate the attack. The panel’s inquiry will be independent from the IDF investigation. To restore normal diplomatic ties with Israel, the Turkish government has requested the establishment of an international inquiry, a public apology, and an end to the Gaza blockade.

    Earlier this week, the Israeli ambassador to the US rejected the idea of an international inquiry into the flotilla attack. The proposal, put forth by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, would have established a panel composed of representatives from Israel, Turkey, and other unnamed countries. Netanyahu was reported to have expressed reservations regarding an international inquiry due to the precedent it would set. Last week, the UN Human Rights Council condemned Israel’s raid on the ships and initiated an independent investigation into possible violations of international law. Additionally, the UN Security Council called for a “prompt, impartial, credible and transparent investigation” into the raid. The Turkish ship on which the violence occurred was one of six organized by the Free Gaza Movement to carry protesters and humanitarian supplies to the besieged Palestinian enclave. (Jurist, June 8)