Israeli navy commandos stormed a Gaza-bound aid flotilla yesterday, killing at least nine pro-Palestinian activists in a pre-dawn raid that sparked global outrage and plunged Israel into a diplomatic crisis.
The bloody ending to the high-profile aid mission prompted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to cut short a visit to Canada and Washington where he had been due to meet with US President Barack Obama.
The ships, carrying more than 700 passengers, were on a mission to deliver some 10,000 tonnes of supplies to Gaza, which has been under a crippling Israeli blockade since 2007.
More than 80 activists had been detained by mid-evening yesterday but many more arrests were expected, Sabine Hadad, spokeswoman for Israel’s immigration police, told AFP.
“So far, 83 have been detained, of whom 25 have agreed to be deported. The rest are going to jail,” she said, adding that authorities were expecting “hundreds more” arrests through the night.
Netanyahu, speaking in Ottawa during a meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, expressed “regret” over the loss of life in the raid in international waters but claimed Israeli troops had acted in self-defense.
Obama, in a telephone call to Netanyahu, said he understood the decision to postpone the visit and the two sides “agreed to reschedule their meeting at the first opportunity”, the White House said in a statement.
As Israel pointed the finger of blame at passengers for initiating the violence, activists from the ships countered with their own descriptions of how events unfolded in the raid which took place at around 5:00am.
Live footage from the Turkish passenger boat, which was posted all over the Internet, showed black-clad Israeli commandos rappelling down from helicopters and clashing with activists, as well as several wounded people lying on the deck of the ship.
Activists from the Free Gaza movement on board the Mavi Marmara charged that Israeli troops “fired directly into the crowd of civilians asleep”.
The Israeli army released footage yesterday of the resistance put up by pro-Palestinian activists as commandos stormed one of the ships.
He confirmed that most of the dead were Turkish, and said another 20 people were wounded. Seven soldiers were wounded, two of them seriously.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan took strong issue with the Israeli account insisting that there had been no one aboard the vessels “other than civilian volunteers”.
The UN Security Council met in emergency session and the Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told delegates that Israel had “lost all legitimacy” through the deadly raid.
“It is murder committed by a state. It has no justification whatsoever,” Davutoglu said.
The bloody raid prompted a chorus of furious condemnation from around the world, particularly in Turkey where thousands took to the streets to protest the assault, and Ankara promptly recalled its ambassador.
Israel in turn issued a travel advisory warning its citizens against travelling to Turkey, but officials said there were no plans to recall its diplomatic representation from the Muslim country, which was once a close ally.
Ismail Haniyeh, prime minister in the Gaza administration of the Islamist Hamas movement, called on the Western-backed Palestinian leadership “to halt negotiations, direct or indirect, with Israel because of this crime”.