BBC News | Monday, 31 May 2010 | 12:02 GMT
More than 10 people have been killed after Israeli commandos stormed a convoy of ships carrying aid to the Gaza Strip, the Israeli army says. Armed forces boarded the largest vessel overnight, clashing with some of the 500 people on board. It happened about 40 miles (64 km) out to sea, in international waters. Israel says its soldiers were shot at and attacked with weapons; the activists say Israeli troops came on board shooting. There has been widespread condemnation of the violence, while the European Union has called for an inquiry to establish what happened.
‘Guns and knives’
The six-ship flotilla, carrying 10,000 tonnes of aid, left the coast of Cyprus on Sunday and had been due to arrive in Gaza on Monday. Israel says its soldiers boarded the lead ship in the early hours but were attacked with axes, knives, bars and at least two guns. "Unfortunately these groups were dead-set on confrontation," Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev told the BBC. "Live fire was used against our forces. They initiated the violence, that’s 100% clear," he said. Organisers of the flotilla said at least 30 people were wounded in the incident. Israel says 10 of its soldiers were injured, one seriously. A leader of Israel’s Islamic Movement, Raed Salah, who was on board, was among those hurt.
Audrey Bomse, a spokesperson for the Free Gaza Movement, which is behind the convoy, told the BBC Israel’s actions were disproportionate. "We were not going to pose any violent resistance. The only resistance that there might be would be passive resistance such as physically blocking the steering room, or blocking the engine room downstairs, so that they couldn’t get taken over. But that was just symbolic resistance." She said there was "absolutely no evidence of live fire". Israel is towing the boats to the port of Ashdod and says it will deport the passengers from there. It says it will deliver the ships’ aid to Gaza.
Turkish TV pictures taken on board the Turkish ship leading the flotilla appeared to show Israeli soldiers fighting to control passengers. The footage showed a number of people, apparently injured, lying on the ground. A woman was seen holding a blood-stained stretcher. Al-Jazeera TV reported from the same ship that Israeli navy forces had opened fire and boarded the vessel, wounding the captain. The Al-Jazeera broadcast ended with a voice shouting in Hebrew, saying: "Everybody shut up!" Israel’s deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon said his country "regrets any loss of life and did everything to avoid this outcome". He accused the convoy of a "premeditated and outrageous provocation", describing the flotilla as an "armada of hate".
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas condemned Israel’s actions, saying it had committed a massacre, while Hamas said Israel had committed a "great crime and a huge violation of international law". Turkey, whose nationals comprised the majority of those on board, accused Israel of "targeting innocent civilians". "We strongly denounce Israel’s inhumane interception," it said, warning of "irreparable consequences" to the two countries’ relations. Turkey was Israel’s closest Muslim ally but relations have deteriorated over the past few years. In Turkey, thousands of protesters demonstrated against Israel in Istanbul, while several countries have summoned Israeli ambassadors to seek an explanation as to what happened. Greece has withdrawn from joint military exercises with Israel in protest at the raid on the flotilla.
Israel had repeatedly said it would stop the boats, calling the campaign a "provocation intended to delegitimise Israel". Israel and Egypt tightened a blockade of Gaza after the Islamist movement Hamas took power there in 2007. Israel says it allows about 15,000 tonnes of humanitarian aid into Gaza every week. But the United Nations says this is less than a quarter of what is needed. The incident comes a day before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is due to meet US President Barack Obama in Washington after one of the most strained periods in US-Israeli relations in years.
Jonathan Marcus, BBC diplomatic correspondent
This was always going to be a high-risk operation for Israel both in terms of reputation and diplomatic repercussions. Taking over vessels at sea is no easy task, even if the units carrying out the mission are well-trained, and it is especially difficult if the people already on board the vessels resist. The full details of what happened will emerge in time, but in political terms the damage has already been done. The deaths threaten to make what was always going to be a potential public relations disaster for Israel into a fully-fledged calamity.