Repatriated flotilla activists challenge Israeli version of deadly raid
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Repatriated pro-Palestinian activists have challenged Israeli claims that its commandos faced a "life-threatening" situation when they opened fire during Monday's pre-dawn raid on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla, denying that anyone aboard was armed.
A day after a deadly Israeli raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla carrying humanitarian aid, Israel has started to interrogate hundreds of activists seized aboard the convoy, while the UN Security Council has called for an international probe into the raid and for the immediate release of all civilians.
Israel has imposed an information blackout, making it difficult to get first-hand accounts from the hundreds of detained activists. But a clearer picture was starting to emerge Tuesday from the dozens of international activists repatriated from Israel. According to Israeli officials, nine activists were killed and seven Israeli troops were wounded in Monday’s pre-dawn raid.
Hundreds of activists from 38 countries – mostly Turks but also Europeans, Palestinians, Israelis and Americans – were detained incommunicado in the southern Israeli port city of Ashdod. The Israeli Interior Ministry said only 50 activists had voluntarily accepted to be repatriated, while around 600 had refused and would remain under detention while Israel weighs up its various legal options. Some 30 wounded activists were still detained in hospitals.
French Prime Minister François Fillon called on Israel on Tuesday afternoon to immediately release nine French flotilla activists still in detention.
‘We did not resist at all’
Israeli officials said that commandos arriving on board a Turkish ship were ambushed by activists who attacked them with clubs, metal rods and knives. On Monday, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) released video footage of what it says were attacks by the activists on its soldiers.
But activists returning home refuted Israel’s account.
A Greek activist who was steering an aid ship behind the Mavi Marmara, the main ship in the six-boat flotilla, told NET TV at Athens airport that he heard shots being fired when commandos stormed a Turkish passenger boat.
“We did not resist at all, we couldn't even if we had wanted to. What could we have done against the commandos who climbed aboard? The only thing some people tried was to delay them from getting to the bridge, forming a human shield. They were fired upon with plastic bullets and were stunned with electric devices,” said Mihalis Grigoropoulos.
A Turkish activist aboard the Mavi Marmara recalled the vessel’s captain warning passengers as Israeli commandos stormed the ship.
“The captain of the vessel Mavi Marmara told us 'They are firing randomly, they are breaking the windows and entering inside. So you should get out of here as soon as possible.' That was our last conversation with him,” Bayram Kalyon told Turkish media at Istanbul airport.
Turkey's Foreign Ministry confirmed late Tuesday that four Turkish citizens were among the dead, and the killings have infuriated one of Israel’s closest Muslim allies, straining relations between the two countries. In a speech to parliament on Tuesday, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the Israeli raid a “bloody massacre”, and warned Israel of irreparable consequences to their bilateral ties.
Ankara sent three planes to Israel to fetch wounded activists, which are expected to bring back some 20 Turkish citizens.
Growing calls for an international probe
But controversy is still raging over why Israeli commandos opened fire with live ammunition aboard the flotilla, even as Israeli diplomats, who have expressed regret over the loss of life, worked to calm international outrage.
At the end of a mammoth emergency session, which ended early Tuesday, the UN Security Council issued a statement calling for a prompt and impartial investigation into the incident and requesting the immediate release of all ships and civilians held by Israel.
The UN Human Rights Council is also due to hold an emergency session Tuesday afternoon, following a request made by members of the Arab League and the Organisation of Islamic Conference. According to a draft resolution, Muslim nations will ask for an “independent international fact-finding mission”.
Focus on the Gaza blockade
The growing diplomatic crisis will ultimately put the spotlight back on the controversial Israeli blockade of Gaza.
Amid mounting international criticism of the blockade which has been in place since the Palestinian Islamist Hamas group took control of the Strip in 2007, Egypt temporarily opened its Rafah border crossing with Gaza. The Rafah crossing is the only point on Gaza's borders that is not fully controlled by Israel.
The International Crisis Group (ICG), a Brussels-based think-tank, called for a complete change of international policy toward Gaza and Hamas.
"Many in the international community have been complicit in a policy that aimed at isolating Gaza in the hope of weakening Hamas. This policy is morally appalling and politically self-defeating . . . Yet it has persisted regardless of evident failure," said the ICG statement.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has confirmed that he will maintain the three-year-old embargo against the Hamas-run enclave. His pledge could soon be tested, however, as another aid ship, the MV Rachel Corrie, is likely to reach Gazan water by Wednesday, according to Israel’s Army Radio.
An Israeli commander told the station that his men were “ready” to intercept the ship.