Tensions Escalate over Israel Raid on Gaza Aid Flotilla

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Jack Guez / AFP / Getty Images

An Israeli military vessel escorts one of the boats in a Gaza-bound aid flotilla to the southern Israeli navy port of Ashdod on May 31, 2010, after navy seals stormed a boat carrying humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip against an Israeli blockade, in a raid which killed several passengers.

Israel faces a wave of international condemnation and growing pressure to end its blockade on Gaza after 15 activists — all of them apparently Turkish — were killed and more than 30 injured after Israeli commandos boarded a ship attempting to carry banned supplies to the Hamas-controlled enclave.

Israel says it cannot allow free access to Gaza that would create a route to smuggle weapons and fighters into the area. Organizers of the flotilla say the list of banned goods includes cement, paper, wheelchairs and some foods.

The passenger ferry Mavi Marmara, carrying an estimated 500 passengers, was the largest of six ships in a flotilla sailing towards Gaza in international waters about 40 miles off the Israeli coast when elite Shayetet-13 naval commandos abseiled from helicopters onto the deck shortly before dawn on May 31.

Greta Berlin, an American founder of the Free Gaza Movement and one of the organizers of the flotilla who was on another ship, said the commandos hit the deck firing indiscriminately at unarmed civilians.

"We never thought Israel would be stupid enough to kill 10 people and wound at least 30," Berlin told Israel Radio.

"We are all civilians. Every one of us is a civilian who is trying to break Israel's blockade of one and a half million Palestinians," she said.

Television images broadcast from the ship showed passengers being treated on bloody stretchers. The dead and wounded were ferried to Israeli hospitals by helicopter. At least five Israeli commandos were hospitalized with gunshot and stab wounds.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said the commandos had orders to use minimum force to commandeer the vessels and met only token resistance on the other five ships, which were commandeered without incident. But Barak said protestors on the Mavi Marmara used "extreme violence" in their attempt to repel the boarders, attacking them with two pistols, knives, iron bars and other makeshift weapons. He said one of the passengers had seized a commando's gun and opened fire on the Israelis. "We express our regret over the injuries, but the flotilla's organizers and its participants are fully responsible," Barak told a news conference in Tel Aviv.

In Ottawa, Canada, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told reporters that the passengers had "deliberately attacked soldiers." Netanyahu announced he was canceling this week's visit to the White House in order to deal with the situation.

A journalist who was accompanying the commandos, Ron Ben-Yishai of the Israeli Ynet news website, listened over radio as the raid unfolded and said the Israelis fell into a "brutal ambush."

"The passengers that awaited them on the deck pulled out bats, clubs, and slingshots with glass marbles, assaulting each soldier as he disembarked. The fighters were nabbed one by one and were beaten up badly, yet they attempted to fight back," Ben-Yishai reported.

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