JERUSALEM—Israeli naval commandos stormed a flotilla of ships carrying aid and hundreds of pro-Palestinian activists to the blockaded Gaza Strip on Monday, killing at as many as 19 passengers in a predawn raid that sets off worldwide condemnation and a diplomatic crisis.
Israel said the forces encountered unexpected resistance as they boarded the vessels. Dozens of passengers and at least five Israeli soldiers were wounded in the confrontation in international waters.
According to Agence France-Presse, Israel’s Channel 10 television is reporting that 19 passengers were killed and 36 wounded in the confrontation, although the Israeli army gave a toll of 10.
Israel’s tough response triggered widespread condemnation across Europe; many of the passengers were from European countries. The raid also strained already tense relations with Israel’s longtime Muslim ally Turkey, the unofficial sponsor of the mission, and drew more attention to the plight of Gaza’s 1.5 million people.
Turkey announced it was withdrawing its ambassador to Israel, cancelling three joint military drills and calling on the U.N. Security Council to convene in an emergency session about Israel. The Israeli ambassadors in Sweden, Spain, Denmark and Greece were summoned for meetings, and the French foreign minister called for an investigation.
The violent takeover also threatened to deal yet another blow to Israel’s international image, already tarnished by war crimes accusations in Gaza and its blockade of the impoverished Palestinian territory.
It occurred a day before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was to meet with President Barack Obama at the White House to discuss the Middle East peace process.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy condemned “the disproportionate use of force” against the flotilla.
“All light must be shed on the circumstances of this tragedy, which underlines the urgency of resuming peace talks,” he said in a statement.
Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak expressed regret for the deaths but blamed the violence on organizers of the flotilla, calling the effort a “political provocation” by anti-Israel forces.
Israeli security forces were on alert across the country, and the government advised Israelis to avoid travel to Turkey.
There were conflicting accounts of what happened early Monday.
An Al-Jazeera reporter on one of the Turkish ships said the Israelis fired at the vessel before boarding it. The Israelis, who had declared they would not let the ships reach Gaza, said they only opened fire after being attacked by activists with sticks, knives and live fire from weapons seized from the Israeli commandos.
“On board the ship we found weapons prepared in advance and used against our forces,” declared Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Danny Ayalon.
“The organizers’ intent was violent, their method was violent and the results were unfortunately violent. Israel regrets any loss of life and did everything to avoid this outcome.”
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas condemned the Israeli “aggression,” declared three days of mourning across the West Bank and called on the U.N. Security Council and Arab League to hold emergency sessions on the incident.
Ismail Haniyeh, leader of the rival Hamas government in Gaza, condemned the “brutal” Israeli attack and called on U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to intervene.
Israel’s military chief, Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, said soldiers were forced by violent activists to respond with live fire.
The activists were headed to Gaza on a mission meant to draw attention to a 3-year-old Israeli blockade of the coastal territory. Israel imposed the blockade after Hamas, which it considers a terrorist group, violently seized the territory. Critics say the blockade has unfairly hurt Gaza’s 1.5 million people.
“It’s disgusting that they have come on board and attacked civilians. We are civilians,” said Greta Berlin, a spokeswoman for the Free Gaza movement, which organized the flotilla. She spoke from the Mediterranean island of Cyprus and said she had lost contact with the flotilla.
Before the ships set sail from waters off the east Mediterranean island of Cyprus on Sunday, Israel had urged the flotilla not to try to breach the blockade and offered to transfer the cargo to Gaza from an Israeli port, following a security inspection.
Israeli naval commandos stormed the ships in a pre-dawn raid while they were in international waters after ordering them to stop about 130 kilometres from Gaza’s coast, according to activists.
A Turkish website showed video of pandemonium on board one of the ships, with activists in orange life jackets running around as some tried to help an activist apparently unconscious on the deck. The site also showed video of an Israeli helicopter flying overhead and Israeli warships nearby.
Turkey’s NTV showed activists beating one Israeli soldier with sticks as he rappelled from a helicopter onto one of the boats.
The Al-Jazeera satellite channel reported by telephone from the Turkish ship leading the flotilla that Israeli navy forces fired at the ship and boarded it, wounding the captain.
“These savages are killing people here, please help,” a Turkish television reporter said.
The broadcast ended with a voice shouting in Hebrew, “Everybody shut up!”
The Israeli military said troops only opened fire after encountering unexpected resistance from the activists. Activists attacked troops with knives and iron rods, and opened fire with two pistols seized from the forces.
A total of five soldiers were wounded, two seriously, including at least one hit by live fire, the army said. Two of the dead activists had fired at soldiers with pistols, the army said.
“They planned this attack,” said Israeli military spokeswoman Lt. Col. Avital Leibovitch. “Our soldiers were injured from these knives and sharp metal objects … as well as from live fire.”
The ships were being towed to the Israeli port of Ashdod, and wounded were evacuated by helicopter to Israeli hospitals, officials said. One of the ships had reached port by midday.
There were no details on the identities of the casualties, or on the conditions of some of the more prominent people on board, including 1976 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mairead Corrigan Maguire of Northern Ireland and European legislators.
A Holocaust survivor who planned to join the flotilla changed her plans at the last minute. Hedy Epstein said on Monday from the Free Gaza Movement’s office in Larnaca, Cyprus that she opted not to join others who made their way to the flotilla ships from the island on Saturday.
The 85-year-old said she had hoped to join other activists aboard another ship, the Rachel Corrie, that was to attempt to reach Gaza later.
Satellite phones on board the ships were turned off, and communication with a small group of reporters embedded with the Israeli military was blocked.
The Free Gaza Movement is an international group of pro-Palestinian activists that claims the blockade, imposed three years ago after the militant Islamic Hamas group overran Gaza, is unjust and a violation of international law.
Organizers included people affiliated with the International Solidarity Movement, a pro-Palestinian group that often sends international activists into battle zones, and the IHH, a Turkish aid group that Israel accuses of having terrorist links.
Hasan Naiboglu, the Turkish maritime affairs undersecretary, told the Anatolia news agency that Israel had jammed communications with the ships. He accused Israel of violating international law by carrying out the raid in international waters.
Israel’s Ynet news website said Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak called Turkish officials, including the defence and foreign ministers, to discuss the raid.
The United Nations expressed “shock” and condemned the killings. “We are in contact with the Israeli authorities to express our deep concern and to seek a full explanation,” said a statement from the highest-ranking U.N. official in the region, Robert Serry.
The flotilla of three cargo ships and three passenger ships carrying 10,000 tons of aid and 700 activists was carrying items that Israel bars from reaching Gaza, like cement and other building materials.
This is the ninth time that the Free Gaza movement has tried to ship in humanitarian aid to Gaza since August 2008.
Israel has allowed ships through five times, but has blocked them from entering Gaza waters since a three-week military offensive against Gaza’s Hamas rulers in January 2009.
The latest flotilla was the largest to date.