By Janine Zacharia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, June 1, 2010; A01
JERUSALEM -- A nighttime Israeli naval operation to seize control of an aid flotilla headed for the Gaza Strip ended in a fatal melee on Monday as passengers battled with helicopter-borne Israeli commandos aboard a ship sailing on international waters. At least nine pro-Palestinian activists were killed.
Turkey, which had dispatched the Mavi Marmara with hundreds of Turkish passengers, condemned Israel, recalled its ambassador and warned of irrevocable consequences to relations. Protesters demonstrated outside the Israeli Consulate in Istanbul, and Israel released an advisory warning Israelis to avoid traveling to Turkey, which had until recently been one of Israel's closest Muslim allies in the region.
Flotilla organizers, who for a week had been girding for a confrontation with Israel, said that the troops used excessive force and that those killed were unarmed, while Israeli officials insisted that the commandos acted in self-defense. Israel now faces widespread international condemnation and fresh calls for it to end its blockade of Gaza, which is intended to isolate the Islamist Hamas movement that rules the territory.
Eight previous flotillas were either allowed to reach Gaza or were diverted by the Israeli navy without incident. This time, activists spent a year planning the eight-ship "Freedom Flotilla,'' soliciting the participation of international parliamentarians and the backing of the Turkish government. Because of the much larger scale of this flotilla, and because of concerns about the presence of activists with alleged links to militant groups, Israel mounted a far more aggressive military response than it had before, officials said. Last week, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu consulted with his top security advisers and approved "Operation Sea Breeze" to try to stop the flotilla from reaching Gaza.
As of late Monday, the Israeli government had not disclosed the identity of those killed, but an Israeli Foreign Ministry official said all nine were most likely Turkish nationals. Seven Israeli naval personnel were wounded aboard the Mavi Marmara.
Israeli ambassadors were summoned across Europe on Monday as the European Union called for a formal inquiry. The U.N. Security Council met in emergency session. "I condemn this dreadful waste of life over a humanitarian issue," U.N. humanitarian coordinator John Holmes said, adding that "such an incident should never have happened or needed to happen."
In a cautiously worded statement, the United States expressed regret about the loss of life but said it is seeking more information. The events forced Netanyahu, who had been scheduled to meet with President Obama in Washington on Tuesday, to cut short a visit to Canada and fly home to deal with the crisis.
The ships that made up the flotilla, with about 700 passengers and 10,000 tons of supplies, set sail with much fanfare from Turkey and ports in Europe last week. The activists said they would not heed Israel's demand to divert to the Israeli port of Ashdod, and Israeli officials pledged that the flotilla would not be allowed to reach the Gaza Strip.
Gaza residents nevertheless dug trenches in the sea to facilitate the passage of the ships, and decorated their port with Turkish flags and a huge photograph of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Israeli commandos departed from Israel's shores after midnight on Monday and easily took control of the flotilla's five smaller ships. About 4 a.m., they lowered themselves with ropes from a helicopter onto the main Turkish vessel, which was approximately 70 miles off the Israeli coast, well into international waters.
Israel said it is allowed under international law to enforce a maritime blockade on international seas. "A state may take action to enforce a blockade. Any vessel that violates or attempts to violate a maritime blockade may be captured or even attacked under international law,'' the Israeli Foreign Ministry said.
In a statement to the United Nations, Turkey characterized Israel's action as a "clear violation of international law" and asked U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to "determine how this bloodshed took place and to ensure that those responsible would be held accountable."
Upon touching down, the Israeli commandos, who were equipped with paint guns and pistols, were assaulted with steel poles, knives and pepper spray. Video showed at least one commando being lifted up and dumped from the ship's upper deck to the lower deck. Some commandos later said they jumped into the water to escape being beaten. The Israeli military said some of the demonstrators fired live ammunition. Israeli officials said the activists had fired two guns stolen from the troops.
Israeli forces continued to land on the ship from above and climb aboard from boats, eventually seizing control and navigating the vessel into Ashdod hours later. Israel declared the port a military zone and prevented journalists from interviewing passengers.
By late Monday, 150 passengers had been processed at Ashdod. About 30 were being transported to Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion Airport and deported, and the remaining 120 -- including nine Americans -- were being transferred to a detention facility in Beersheba, in southern Israel, according to Sabin Hadad, a spokeswoman for the Israeli Interior Ministry.
Some in Israel questioned the wisdom of the military trying to take the ships by force. "Definitely I think the outcome is proving that it was a mistake,'' said Alon Liel, a former director general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry.
Diana Buttu, a Palestinian lawyer who spoke on behalf of the flotilla organizers, said they had been emboldened by the scope of the media coverage surrounding the attempt to run the blockade.
Israel allows goods to pass into the Gaza Strip but limits, or prevents, certain categories, especially for construction. Many goods are smuggled into Gaza through underground tunnels from Egypt.
Flotilla organizers, from the Turkish nongovernmental organization IHH, or Humanitarian Relief Fund, said they were transporting 6,000 tons of cement, more than 2,000 tons of iron, 100 prefabricated houses, 500 wheelchairs, medical equipment, wood and glass for building, electric generators and food.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who is leading indirect talks with Israel brokered by the United States, declared three days of mourning. It was not clear what effect the Israeli raid will have on the negotiations.