A public relations battle is raging between Palestinian and Israeli groups over the Gaza flotilla attacks, with both groups parsing video footage of the events to serve their own interests.
Pro-Palestinian groups say the deaths of at least nine activists are evidence of Israel's violent and excessive policies. Pro-Israel activists, meanwhile, say Israeli commandos were attacked by pro-Palestinian activists armed with slingshots, knives, and metal bars as the commandos rappelled from helicopters down onto the Mavi Marmara, the largest of the aid ships.
For evidence, both sides are pointing to several videos. One, from Al Jazeera, shows the raid from the perspective of activists aboard the Mavi Marmara. Several more videos are from the Israeli Foreign Ministry, which are from the point of view of Israeli soldiers as they encounter violent resistance from activists.
Having viewed all the videos, it is clear that none of the participants acted peacefully. Yet all sides are eager to use the video footage to put forward their own narrative of events.
The Israeli version
Of the six vessels, only the Mavi Marmara refused orders from Israel to reroute to the Israeli port at Ashdod, says Rony Yedidia, deputy consul general of the Israeli consulate in Boston. "Our forces had to board the ship," she says, adding that forces were then "ambushed" when they rappelled from helicopters down onto the vessel. However, retired US diplomat Edward Peck told ABC News that Israeli commandos also seized control of his ship – in addition to the Mavi Marmara – after overcoming resistance from some of the passengers.
The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs posted several videos on its website and also on YouTube, along with the headline: "IDF forces met with pre-planned violence when attempting to board flotilla 31-May-2010." This grainy, black-and-white footage shows Israeli commandos getting attacked in what the Foreign Ministry calls "life-threatening and violent activity." One soldier is thrown overboard:
"The people on the boats were not on a purely humanitarian mission," says Ms. Yedidia of the Israeli consulate. "They were there to provoke Israeli forces."
Another IDF video shows the weapons discovered aboard the Mavi Marmara and purportedly used against the Israeli soldiers: firecrackers, slingshots, several sacks of marbles, metal poles, and several dozen knives and large wrenches.
Despite these videos, Stephen Walt of Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs says it will be difficult for Israel to paint itself as a victim. "When well-armed commandos board a vessel by force, they shouldn’t be surprised if they are met with resistance," he says. "The fact that there was resistance in no way exonerates the Israeli forces from what they did."
"It was simply foolish to have attacked the flotilla in international waters and with such a trigger-happy approach," Mr. Walt says. "They almost certainly did not intend to kill 10 to 20 people, but they clearly acted in a way that made that happen relatively quickly."
The Palestinian version
In response, the Free Gaza Movement tweeted: "Israeli spin. Video showing weapons on board to be sling shots and marbles. Injured are more likely the passengers since no faces are seen." Another tweet from the Free Gaza Movement read: "Israel cannot confiscate every bit of footage, every piece of tape. They cannot tape our mouths shut as we tell the story of their attack."
The Free Gaza Movement linked to the following news report from CNN and Al Jazeera, which focuses on the injured humanitarian workers:
Other pro-Palestinian groups, such as the Palestinian Solidarity Movement, also cited Al Jazeera's report as evidence of Israel's excessive force. "Live video from the flotilla shows Israeli naval commando vessels pulling alongside the aid ships, and what sounds like gunfire can be heard in the background. No one on the aid ships is carrying any kinds of weapons, including for defense against a feared Israeli attack in international waters," the group said in a statement.
Adam Shapiro, a founder of the pro-Palestinian International Solidarity Movement, whose wife was on one the ship, told PBS Newshour that the movement had no intentions of using violence. "It is utterly absurd to think that we could face down a military with the strength and the kind of technology and weapons that Israel possesses," he said.
Israel, which devotes 6 percent of GDP to its defense forces (the sixth most of any nation worldwide, according to the CIA World Factbook), operates a significant navy and could have simply blocked the aid flotilla from reaching Gaza, argues Norman Finkelstein, a scholar who is a critic of Israel and its policies. "It had non-violent options... Their only option wasn’t an armed commando raid the dead of night."
"I don’t think the issue is the PR war," he continues. "I think the issue is we could be on the verge of something quite frightening. This was not a split-second decision. This was a decision taken by the entire Israeli cabinet after a week of deliberation."
All 600 activists were brought to Israel and not all of them have been released yet. "We won’t really know the story until the Israelis release the aid workers," Mr. Finkelstein says in a telephone interview.
Media use of videos
Fox News spoke with Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who defended Israel's actions and said "we also have seven of our soldiers wounded, some of them severely." His remarks are paired with footage of the Israeli assault:
By contrast, Iran's Press TV shows footage of Israeli troops holding the activists at gunpoint, with a voiceover from two broadcasters delivering strong condemnation of Israel's actions. "They were headed toward the Gaza Strip trying to break the three-year siege that has been put on that area since the Israeli onslaught of the area," the broadcaster states.
The raid is already inspiring lampoons. One video on YouTube, titled "Footage from the raid on the Gaza flotilla," shows scenes from a shoot-em-up video game, with heavily armed cartoon troops storming a ship.
Calls for independent inquiry
Considering the competing versions of the raid, an impartial report is necessary to establish what happened, says Walt, of Harvard University. "Everyone should take a deep breath and recognize this is the sort of thing that calls for an independent inquiry," he says.
While the ships were unsuccessful in reaching the Gaza Strip, they have successfully brought scrutiny on Israel and its blockade, which it maintains with Egypt over the coastal territory of 1.5 million Palestinians. The six-ship flotilla was the biggest attempt to bust the Gaza blockade in nearly two years of attempts.
"The flotilla was intended for two purposes: to bring humanitarian assistance, and if that was not possible then to highlight what was being done and to bring international attention to it and to challenge the blockade," says Walt. "The thing to recognize is that the tap root of this is the continued conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians. The immediate issue is the prolonged Israeli siege of Gaza."