Armed Activists Attacked Our Troops, Says Israel Amid World Outrage
June 1, 2010Facing the world's wrath over the deadly clash at sea between its troops and pro-Palestinian activists, the Israeli Defense Forces released video footage Monday showing groups of activists attacking Israeli soldiers the moment they landed on deck.
The footage, along with an array of weapons found onboard the Turkish-flagged ship Mavi Marmara – now docked in the Israeli port of Ashdod – presents a picture at odds with accounts given by pro-Palestinian groups of a massive, disproportionate assault on peaceful civilians.
International condemnation is widespread and ongoing, with protestors taking to the streets in many, mostly Islamic countries, and Israel’s erstwhile ally, Turkey, warning of “irreparable consequences” to bilateral ties. Iran demanded action by the Organization of the Islamic Conference, and even European countries generally friendly towards Israel were strongly critical.
An emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council, called by Turkey, saw member states’ envoys one by one express shock over the incident, in which nine activists were killed.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu set the tone for the Council session, describing the incident as “banditry and piracy” and “murder conducted by a state.”
Many Council members called for an independent investigation and demanded a lifting of the blockade of the Gaza Strip, imposed by Israel after Hamas seized control of the territory in 2007.
The meeting then went into closed session to debate the wording of a draft presidential statement.
The Marmara and accompanying ships were headed for Gaza in what the campaigners said was a humanitarian mission.
Israel, which views the Gaza convoys as a “political provocation” and media stunt, says it allows humanitarian aid to enter through land crossings, but subject to security checks to prevent the smuggling in of weapons like the thousands of rockets that have been fired into Israel from Gaza in recent years.
Before the ships were boarded, the IDF warned them not to continue heading for Gaza but said they should instead dock in nearby Ashdod. Once the cargo had been inspected there, the activists would be able to observe its delivery to Gaza, it said. After the crews refused to comply, “it was decided to board the ships and lead them to Ashdod.”
Israeli commandos then boarded the ships in international waters.
The footage released by the IDF shows Israelis rappelling from a helicopter and landing on the deck several seconds apart, immediately being set upon by waiting activists, armed with bars or clubs (see videos). A soldier is seen being pushed over a railing, and thrown to a deck below.
The IDF also claimed that activists had seized two firearms from soldiers and fired at them.
“As a result of this life-threatening and violent activity, naval forces first employed riot dispersal means, followed by live fire.”
“The ‘Free Gaza’ flotilla had publicly insisted on their non-violent intentions, however their violent attack on the IDF soldiers was clearly premeditated,” said the IDF. “They had knives, metal rods, firebombs and other items ready to use.”
According to Israeli figures, seven soldiers were wounded, two of them critically.
Images released later showed knives, slingshots, rocks, smoke bombs, iron bars, sticks, clubs hammers, firebombs and gasmasks, which Israel said were found onboard the Turkish vessel.
(Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who accused Israel of “inhuman state terror,” said the ships had been inspected before leaving port and had contained only humanitarian aid.)
In stark contrast to the IDF version, the Free Gaza Movement described the incident as an unprovoked assault: “Under darkness of night, Israeli commandoes dropped from a helicopter onto the Turkish passenger ship, Mavi Marmara, and began to shoot the moment their feet hit the deck,” it said in a statement. “They fired directly into the crowd of civilians asleep.”
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who called off a planned White House visit and returned home, said Israel regretted the loss of life. “I give my complete backing to the army, the soldiers and commanders who acted to defend the state and to protect their lives.”
Defense Minister Ehud Barak also insisted the troops acted appropriately, and said blame for the deaths should be laid at the door of the organizers, who defied repeated Israeli requests to offload their cargoes at Ashdod, where it would have been checked and then sent to Gaza via road border crossings.
“The area is ruled by a terror organization, Hamas, which possesses rockets that threatened Israel and its soldiers,” Barak told a press conference. “Therefore, Israel has the natural right to examine all cargo entering the Strip. The sail was a provocation.”
He also said that the soldiers had been met by violence on only one of six ships in the activists’ flotilla, the Marmara. The other boardings had gone smoothly.
“The organization behind the flotilla is not a humanitarian aid organization,” Barak said.
He was alluding to one of the Turkish groups behind the flotilla, Insani Yardim Vakfi. Known by the acronym IHH, it was one of 36 ostensibly charitable organizations banned by Barak in 2008 as identified fundraisers for Hamas.
A visiting IHH official, Izzat Shahin, was arrested in the West Bank in April, questioned on suspicions of funding terrorism, and deported.
A recent report by the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, an Israel-based non-governmental institution, alleged that the IHH has supported “jihadist terrorist networks in Bosnia, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Chechnya.”
Of the various ships in the Free Gaza Movement flotilla, IHH organized the ones from Turkey, including the Marmara. It hosted a farewell ceremony marking its departure from Istanbul, and a giant IHH banner was displayed prominently on the ship’s hull, between Turkish and Palestinian flags.
Israel’s Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, also noted that violence had only erupted on the one vessel.
“What occurred on the Marmara ship under possession of the extremist IHH organization is not what took place in the five other ships in the flotilla,” he told reporters.
“From what I saw during the night, there was no connection to a campaign or demonstration of peaceful workers or of humanitarian aid,” Ashkenazi said. “It was extreme violence from the first moment our soldiers boarded the ship, with prior preparation to attack the soldiers with metal and wooden poles, and knives.”
‘US expects full and credible investigation’
Netanyahu was to have met with President Obama on Tuesday, a visit aimed at easing tensions that have arisen between the two over Israeli policies regarding Jerusalem.
But the developments at home prompted the prime minister, who was in Canada at the time, to return home immediately. The visit will be rescheduled at the first opportunity, the White House said in a statement.
It said that Obama in a phone conversation with Netanyahu had “expressed the importance of learning all the facts and circumstances around this morning’s tragic events as soon as possible.”
The State Department in a later statement also said the U.S. expected “a full and credible investigation” by the Israeli government.
Spokesman Philip Crowley said the U.S. would continue to discuss with Israel the expansion of “the scope and type of goods allowed into Gaza to address the full range of the population’s humanitarian and recovery needs.”
He also chided groups organizing attempts to break the blockade.
“Mechanisms exist for the transfer of humanitarian assistance to Gaza by governments and groups that wish to do so,” Crowley said. “These mechanisms should be used for the benefit of all those in Gaza.”
Israeli officials said some 480 crew and passengers from the ships were held for questioning, and Israel Radio reported Tuesday that most would be deported to their countries of origin.