Israel: At least 9 pro-Palestinian activists killed on Gaza flotilla carrying aid.

By Janine Zacharia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, May 31, 2010; 1:38 PM

JERUSALEM -- At least nine pro-Palestinian activists were killed and dozens were wounded aboard an aid flotilla bound for the Gaza Strip when Israeli naval commandos seized control of the boats in international waters early Monday.

An Israeli army spokesman would not disclose their identities or nationalities. Some Turkish, Israeli and Arab media outlets had earlier put the death toll at 19 activists and said they included as many as 10 Turkish nationals. The wounded were evacuated to Israeli hospitals and the ships were led into Israel's Ashdod port, where the passengers and aid supplies were being unloaded and screened. Seven Israeli naval personnel were also injured.

Sharp condemnations of Israel rang out from across the world, with several European countries summoning Israeli ambassadors to protest. The European Union called for an inquiry into the deaths. And the United Nations Security Council planned to meet Monday afternoon for an emergency session. The United States expressed regret at the loss of the life and said it was "working to understand the circumstances of the tragedy."

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who is in Canada and had been scheduled to meet President Obama in Washington on Tuesday, decided to cut short his trip and will return home Monday night instead, his office said.

Turkey, which dispatched the main Mavi Marmara ship carrying 600 activists and thousands of tons of aid, strongly condemned Israel, warning of deep consequences to relations, as protesters demonstrated outside the Israeli consulate in Istanbul and Israel released a travel advisory warning Israelis to avoid travel to Turkey.

"We strongly condemn these inhumane acts of Israel. This grave incident which took place in high seas in gross violation of international law might cause irreversible consequences in our relations," the Turkish Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Israel had warned the organizers of the flotilla -- transporting items such as concrete to help Gaza rebuild after last year's war with Israel -- that they would not be allowed to sail directly through the blockaded region.

The activists refused to dock in Israel and have relief supplies unloaded and inspected there, saying they did not trust that Israel would allow the contents to be trucked to the Gaza Strip.

Overnight, Israeli naval personnel dropped from helicopters onto the largest passenger ship from Turkey, which had mostly Turkish nationals aboard. Short video clips broadcast on television stations showed demonstrators clubbing the navy personnel with metal bars and showed at least one Israeli commando firing.

Israeli military officials said demonstrators attacked the navy personnel with knives and live fire and seized at least one of the soldiers' weapons.

"This IDF naval operation was carried out under orders from the political leadership to halt the flotilla from reaching the Gaza Strip and breaching the naval blockade," the Israeli army said in its statement.

Past flotillas either reached Gaza or were diverted to Israel peacefully. But the activists, frustrated with a continuing blockade of Gaza, mounted a much larger effort this time to challenge the siege. Israel, amid growing tensions with Turkey and anxieties about the Turkish organizers' contacts with what Israeli officials described as terrorist groups, said it needed to keep the siege in tact.

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