Mourners in Istanbul hoisted coffins above their heads to cheers of "God is great!" Thursday to honor activists slain during an Israel commando raid, as Israel rejected demands for an international panel to investigate its deadly seizure of an Gaza-bound aid ship.
Some 10,000 people turned out for the funeral of eight of the nine activists killed in Monday's pre-dawn military takeover of six aid ships — eight Turks and an American of Turkish origin. The funeral came after thousands jammed Istanbul's main square overnight to welcome home hundreds of pro-Palestinian activists plucked from the aid boats then expelled by Israel.
The crowd prayed before eight Turkish and Palestinian flag-draped coffins lined up in a row outside Istanbul's Fatih mosque in a traditional service for the dead.
"Our friends have been massacred," Bulent Yildirim, the head of the Islamic charity group IHH that organized the flotilla, told the crowd.
"We became martyrs," he said, to shouts of "God is great!" from the mourners, who then carried the coffins through the crowd to cars to be taken for burial.
A ninth victim, a Turkish man, was to have a separate service on Friday.
Earlier, Turks flooded Istanbul's main Taksim Square in the middle of the night before moving to Istanbul airport to welcome home the activists. One large banner read "Murderous Israelis: Take your hands off our ships" while others in the crowd held signs reading "From now on, nothing will be the same" and "Intifada is everywhere — at land and at sea" — in reference to the Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation.
All of the nine activists died from gunshot wounds — some from close range — according to initial forensic examinations done in Turkey after the bodies were returned, NTV television reported, citing unidentified medical sources.
Israeli officials have insisted that their military already is investigating the raid and the country is capable of conducting a credible review.
"It is our standard practice after military operations, especially operations in which there have been fatalities, to conduct a prompt, professional, transparent and objective investigation in accordance with the highest international standards," government spokesman Mark Regev said.
Another official in the Israeli prime minister's office said there would be no separate international investigation. He spoke on condition of anonymity pending an official decision.
Israel maintains that the commandos only used their pistols as a last resort after they were attacked, and released a video showing soldiers in riot gear descending from a helicopter into a crowd of men with sticks and clubs. Three or four activists overpowered each soldier as he landed.
Returning activists admitted fighting with the Israelis but insisted their actions were in self defense, because their ships were being boarded in international waters by a military force.
"We first thought they were trying to scare us," Yildirim said, following his deportation from Israel early Thursday. "When we started morning prayers, they began attacking from everywhere, from the boats, from the helicopters. Our friends only performed civil resistance."
Yildirim said the activists fought the Israeli commandos with chairs and sticks and that they seized weapons from some Israeli soldiers, but threw them into the sea.
Israel says two of the seven soldiers wounded were shot with guns that were wrested from them, while a third was stabbed.
"Even if we had used the guns that would be still a legitimate self defense," Yildirim said.
The incident has increased tensions in the region, including with Turkey, Israel's closest ally in the Muslim world. On Thursday, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called Israel's actions "a historic mistake."
"Israel risks losing its most important friend in the region if it doesn't change its mentality," he said, adding later "from now on we will not bow to this bullying."
The activists say their flotilla aimed to bring 10,000 tons of aid to Palestinians in Gaza, which has been under a three-year blockade by Israel and Egypt.
Netanyahu said the aim of the flotilla was to break the blockade, not to bring aid to Gaza. If the blockade ended, he warned, hundreds of ships would bring in thousands of missiles from Iran, to be aimed at Israel and beyond.
Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev claimed that Yildirim's Foundation for Human Rights and Freedom and Humanitarian Relief, known by its Turkish initials IHH, incited the violence on the ships.
"Unfortunately on one particular boat there were representatives of a very extreme Turkish Islamic radical group, the IHH," he said. "It's documented as having terrorist connections."
The IHH vehemently denies ties to radical groups and is not on the U.S. list of terror groups.
Other activists from the flotilla also insisted their purpose was entirely peaceful.
"However much the Israelis are screaming that they have found weapons, it is just nonsense," said best-selling Swedish crime novelist Henning Mankell, who was traveling on the Swedish-Greek ship Sofia in the Gaza convoy.
"On the ship where I was, they found one weapon and that was my safety razor, and they actually came forward and showed that," Mankell told Swedish radio.
Shaza Barakat a 45-year-old Syrian activist on the Mavi Marmara aid ship, said those who fought were just trying to defend themselves.
"Men on board defended themselves against the Israeli soldiers armed with American rifles with their bare hands," she said.
A total of 466 activists, including more than 50 foreigners, returned to Istanbul early Thursday. Most were Turkish but people from nearly 20 nations were on the aid boats, including from the United States, France, Germany and Britain.
Turkey's ambassador to Israel, Oguz Celikkol, also returned to Istanbul to protest the Israeli raid.