By Luis Ramirez of VOA News, Jerusalem – Israel says its commandos acted in self-defense when they stormed a flotilla of aid ships bound for Gaza. The raid in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Israel killed at least nine pro-Palestinian activists, and left many more wounded. The flotilla was trying to break a three-year-old blockade of the Palestinian enclave.
Video images released by the Israel Defense Forces show activists on board the deck of the largest ship in the flotilla, a Turkish vessel, using metal bars to beat Israeli commandos who had boarded the ship on a rope from a helicopter overhead.
Israeli military officials said the soldiers were carrying paint-ball guns and had orders to use their pistols only to defend themselves. They said the activists took the guns from two of the soldiers and used them to fire at the commandos, who then returned fire.
The deadly confrontation has raised questions about the blockade that Israel – along with Egypt – have maintained on Gaza and which the hundreds of activists aboard the flotilla were trying to break.
The blockade is meant to prevent the import of materials that militants in Gaza could use to make rockets and other weapons to attack Israel, as well as construction materials that could be used to build bunkers. Israeli leaders say it is a matter of life or death for the Jewish State.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, speaking in Canada as he cut short a trip to North America, tried to quell some of the intense criticism that Israel is facing in the wake of the incident.
“Our policy is this. We try to let all humanitarian goods food medicine, and the like. What we want to prevent coming in to Gaza used to attack our civilians. This is our ongoing policy and it is the one that guided our action,” said Netanyahu.
Israel says it will inspect the thousands of tons of aid that the ships are carrying and transfer the cargo to Gaza by land.
People in Gaza had prepared for a welcome ceremony. Instead, there were angry protests. Leader Ismail Haniyeh of the militant Islamist group Hamas that rules Gaza called for the international community to condemn Israel.
He said the occupation decided to carry out, what he called, a piracy and to go beyond what he said are all the norms and laws of humanity. Haniyeh said this incident is perhaps not a surprise to the Palestinian people since, in his words, they know the occupation and its crimes.
Israeli officials say most of those killed in the raid were Turkish nationals.
Turkey angrily condemned the Israeli action and withdrew its ambassador to Israel.
The six ships carrying nearly 700 international activists were towed to Israeli ports where the wounded were transferred to Israeli hospitals. Others were processed for deportation and some were jailed after refusing to provide identification.
The flotilla’s organizers said it was supposed to be a nonviolent demonstration. Audrey Bomse of the Free Gaza movement, one of several organizations sponsoring the trip, told VOA that despite what the video footage shows, she questions Israel’s account of who attacked first.
“The footage also shows people jumping out of helicopters shooting. I do not know what happened first. If they were getting shot at, you would imagine that they were defending themselves,” said Bomse.
The questions may ultimately be answered by inquiries that some members of the international community are demanding.