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Israeli forces intercepted an international aid flotilla headed for Gaza early Monday, roping onto the boats by helicopter and killing more than 10 people and injuring dozens.
The Gaza flotilla, led by a group of mostly European and Turkish activists, had been heading for a showdown with Israel, which had made clear it would not allow the six ships to break its blockade of Gaza to bring humanitarian and building supplies to the coastal enclave.
But the violent and bloody confrontation was unexpected, and will likely have serious consequences on Israel’s already-strained relations with Turkey. It has already provoked international condemnation, and comes just before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was scheduled to visit the White House on Tuesday. Some Israeli media reported he would now delay that visit.
A Turkish charity involved with the flotilla said as many as 15 people were killed, mostly Turkish citizens, according to Agence France-Presse. Palestinian news agency Ma’an reported that five of the dead were Israeli Arabs from Haifa. The Israeli military said four commandos had been wounded. Israeli commandos boarded the ships by helicopter in international waters after ordering the flotilla to stop about 80 miles from the coast of Gaza.
Israel put the blame for the violence on the activists, saying its naval troops were attacked with knives, clubs, and gunfire when they boarded some of the ships, and were forced to defend themselves, reports AFP.
"They initiated the violence," [Mark Regev, spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu,] told AFP. "We made every possible effort to avoid this incident. The servicemen were given instructions that it was to be a police operation and to use maximum restraint."
The Los Angeles Times reports that an Israeli military spokesman said activists grabbed a soldier’s weapon and began using it to fire on the boarding naval forces. But the activists tell a different story, according to the Times.
A flotilla spokeswoman, Greta Berlin, told Israel Radio that the confrontation was broadcast live from a Turkish boat participating in the flotilla. The footage, she said, clearly showed Israeli soldiers landing on the deck and opening fire on civilians.
"The minute their feet hit the deck, they started to shoot," Berlin said.
The Times also reports that a video feed from the confrontation appears to show activists beating the Israeli commandos as they roped onto the ship from helicopters.
The killings have provoked widespread condemnation outside Israel.
Turkey recalled its ambassador to Israel after its foreign ministry released a statement calling the confrontation a “gross breach of international law,” and warning it might have “irrevocable consequences” for Turkish-Israeli relations, according to Al Jazeera.
Amr Moussa, secretary general of the Arab League, called an emergency meeting of the organization for Tuesday and condemned Israel for its acts of “terrorism and piracy.” The response from European nations was more reserved, though still negative.
Meanwhile, opinion pieces and editorials in Israeli newspapers skewered the Israeli actions, and even columnists supportive of the Gaza siege and Israel’s right to raid the flotilla bemoaned the international relations disaster the killings will cause.
An opinion piece in Israeli center-left newspaper Ha’aretz called Israeli policy makers a “ship of fools.”
Of course the peace flotilla will not bring peace, and it won't even manage to reach the Gaza shore. The action plan has included dragging the ships to Ashdod port, but it has again dragged us to the shores of stupidity and wrongdoing. Again we will be portrayed not only as the ones that have blocked assistance, but also as fools who do everything to even further undermine our own standing. If that was one of the goals of the peace flotilla's organizers, they won big yesterday.
An opinion piece in the conservative Jerusalem Post called the flotilla “just another chapter in an international campaign to chip away at Israel’s legitimate right to defend itself,” but criticized the way Israel handled its interception. While the public relations battle was likely lost from the beginning, Israel could have taken steps to avoid such an ending.
Meanwhile, Ma’an reports that clashes broke between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers in East Jerusalem as Palestinians protested the killings. Rallies were also held in Palestinian villages in Israel and in Gaza, where Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh called for a strike.