A day after a botched Israeli raid to stop the Gaza "Freedom Flotilla" from carrying some 700 activists and 10,000 tons of humanitarian aid to the besieged territory, details remain scant about the operation, in which at least nine activists were killed.
Several ships were towed into the port around noon on Monday. The largest passenger ship, the Turkish-flagged Mavi Marmara arrived about 6:45 p.m. Monday as the sun was setting on a day that saw at least nine of the approximately 600 activists on board killed in a skirmish with Israeli commandos.
Israel has also barred journalists from accessing the Ashdod port to which the ships, and their passengers, were towed – and even the wounded were being treated at hospitals under heavy military guard.
Israel says its commandos, which rappelled onto the largest Turkish-flag ship from helicopters, faced violent resistance from the activist passengers, and used live fire in self-defense. Footage provided by both passengers and the Israeli military show activists beating Israeli commandos, but human rights groups have come out against what they say was Israel’s “excessive use of force.”
“Israel should have stopped the boats, but not so foolishly,” says Noam Gali, a retired Israeli humanities professor who traveled to Ashdod to observe the scene. “It doesn’t make me sympathize, as an Israeli, with the activists, but we made a mistake.”
Buzzing helicopters as ships unload
Apache helicopter gunships buzzed noisily over the otherwise sleepy Israeli seaport of Ashdod, where dozens of local activists and foreign journalists had descended on the waterfront in anticipation of the seized fleet’s arrival.
“We are trying to express our solidarity with the activists and with the people of Gaza by maintaining a presence at the port,” said Inna Michaeli, one of about 100 left-wing Israeli activists and coordinator with the Coalition of Women for Peace, on Monday. “But we are being stopped by the police and by the army. They have turned our country into a military zone.”
Israel's army transfers aid to Gaza
As international criticism and even fury mounted in the wake of the attack, carried out in international waters on the Mediterranean, Israel scrambled to defend its decision to intercept the boats.
On Tuesday, Israeli military officials allowed journalists to tour the country’s only commercial crossing with the Gaza Strip, Kerem-Shalom, where they say they are currently transferring the first shipments of the flotilla’s humanitarian supplies into the blockaded territory. Israel had opposed the flotilla out of concern that it could be used to smuggle weapons to Hamas, which runs the Gaza Strip and is considered by Israel, Europe, and the US to be a terrorist group.
Hamas rejects aid
But Hamas officials in Gaza rejected the aid, reports from the territory said. The Islamists said they would not accept the aid until Israel released the hundreds of foreign flotilla activists who had been detained in Ashdod upon arrival – and then only if the shipments were “complete.”
Among the 10,000 tons of aid is cement to help Gaza rebuild after Israel’s devastating three-week offensive on the territory last year. But Israel does not permit cement into the territory, because it can also be used to reinforce smuggling tunnels (to bring in weapons) along the Gaza border.
Uri Singer, head of the foreign relations branch of Israel’s Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), told journalists at a briefing Tuesday that while Israel had begun transferring some aid, it could not guarantee that all of it would be transferred until it reviewed the complete inventory.
“The [flotilla] goods arrived without any order or manifest,” said Mr. Singer. “We need to understand first what is on the ships, and then we will process and send the goods according to Israeli policy vis-à-vis the Gaza Strip.”