By Mary Beth Sheridan and Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 2, 2010; A09
Under a moonlit sky, Huwaida Arraf, a graduate of American University's law school, watched from a small ship early Monday as Israeli commando boats pulled up to the Mavi Marmara, a vessel filled with about 600 activists hoping to breach an Israeli blockade of Gaza.
Arraf, a longtime activist with the Free Gaza Movement, said she saw Israeli sailors throw concussion grenades aboard the vessel. She heard the crackle of gunfire. As an Israeli military helicopter clattered above, the Marmara's passengers, clad in orange life vests, aimed powerful water hoses to keep soldiers from clambering up its sides, she said.
It was the start of a confrontation that would leave nine of the activists dead and Israel facing condemnation worldwide.
Nearly two days later, there were still clashing versions of how the fight played out. Dueling videos played on YouTube: Israeli government footage showing passengers beating the commandos with rods and fists; Turkish video showing passengers panicking as they heard bursts of gunfire and saw soldiers rappelling from helicopters.
Many passengers were still in Israeli detention until Tuesday night, making it difficult to get their accounts. One of the few who was quickly deported, Nilufer Cetin, the wife of the Marmara's engineer, told the Associated Press after arriving home in Turkey: "There was a massacre on board."
The Israeli government, however, said its soldiers opened fire only after they came under assault. Some of them suffered "live fire wounds" from people on the Turkish-flagged vessel, according to Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev. Israeli officials have provided no evidence that the activists were armed but have said that two pistols taken from Israeli soldiers during the raid had been discharged.
The Marmara was one of six ships in a flotilla organized by international activists to bring construction material, wheelchairs, water-purification equipment and other goods to Gaza. Israel has blockaded the strip since the Hamas militant group, which Israel and the United States consider a terrorist organization, seized power three years ago.
In the past, similar flotillas were permitted to reach Gaza or were diverted by the Israeli navy without problems. But this flotilla was larger, carrying prominent people, including European parliamentarians and a retired senior U.S. diplomat, Edward Peck. Most disconcerting to Israel, the Marmara belonged to the IHH, or Humanitarian Relief Fund, a large Turkish charity that Israeli officials suspect of ties to Islamic radicals.
Regev told reporters in Jerusalem that Israeli soldiers boarded five of the ships without major incident. But when they approached the Marmara, "the response was this level of brutal, deadly violence: knives, machetes, iron crowbars," Regev said. "You just have to look at the injuries that our soldiers received. And they were forced to defend themselves with live fire."
Video shot by the Israeli military shows one soldier being thrown from an upper deck onto a lower deck. One speaker on the Turkish video acknowledges at one point that two Israeli soldiers had been "captured."
"They are now being held safely inside. They are not being harmed," he said, speaking from the deck of the Marmara.
Norman Paech, a former member of Germany's Left Party who was aboard the Turkish vessel, said he saw only three activists resisting.
"They had no knives, no axes, only sticks that they used to defend themselves," Paech said at a news conference in Berlin. He added, however, that he could "not rule out" that others used weapons somewhere else on the boat.
Arraf, 34, a dual American-Israeli citizen of Palestinian origin, had initially set out on the Marmara. When she boarded, she said, she was searched by Turkish security personnel aboard. She said she did not see any weapons on the ship. "I'm sure there were knives," Arraf said. "There were kitchens on every floor. You expect knives in order to feed that many people."
Arraf had switched boats Sunday, boarding the U.S.-flagged Challenger One. Hours later, she said, the Israeli navy contacted her boat by radio when it was about 100 miles off the Gaza coast, in international waters. She said the captain informed the Israeli navy that the passengers -- from the United States, Ireland, Great Britain and Australia -- were unarmed.
Arraf said she and her colleagues tried to block the soldiers from boarding the ship, then surrounded the doorway to the wheelhouse. The soldiers used tasers and concussion grenades and kicked the passengers aside, she said.
Peck, 80, was on a third ship, the Sfendoni. He said he was awakened by a "thump, thump, thump" of Israeli commandos in black ski masks boarding the vessel. "They were well-trained, they behaved reasonably well," he said. The soldiers scuffled with a few activists trying to bar their access to the wheelhouse, but there were no major injuries, Peck said.
He saw news reports about the killings only when he arrived in New Jersey early Tuesday, he said.
"It's unfortunate in just about every way imaginable," he said.
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.