Reporting from Jerusalem — — Israel faced a global diplomatic firestorm Monday over its deadly raid on a protest flotilla carrying humanitarian aid that was attempting to break through an Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip.
Amid demonstrations erupting worldwide, foreign leaders and protest organizers accused Israel of using excessive force in the raid in international waters. At an emergency meeting, the United Nations Security Council condemned the violence and called for an investigation.
Israel defended its actions, saying its soldiers were ambushed with knives and metal bars — as well as handguns wrested from the commandos — during the late-night raid, which occurred about 40 miles off Israel's coast.
The Israeli military said nine protesters were killed. Protest organizers put the death toll at 16. Dozens were wounded, including seven Israeli soldiers.
Video of the raid released by the Israeli military, Turkish television and other media sources depicted a dramatic high-seas brawl in which Israeli commandos rappelled from helicopters onto a ship and immediately clashed with activists on board.
Responding to the brewing crisis, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cut short his visit to Canada to return to Israel, cancelling a much-anticipated White House visit with President Obama scheduled for Tuesday that been widely seen as an opportunity to show improved U.S.-Israeli ties.
The Israeli raid appeared to be a public relations nightmare for Israel, putting the Obama administration in an awkward position just as it hoped to put to rest a frosty period in its alliance with Israel.
Whereas most governments used harsh language to condemn the raid, the administration responded cautiously, expressing regret at the loss of life but stopping short of criticizing Israel until full details of the incident are known.
The global focus on Israel's conduct in the raid — including the attention of the U.N. Security Council — now threatens to be a distraction from the U.S. administration's diplomatic priorities, notably getting international consensus for sanctions to deal with Iran's nuclear program.
Despite the international outrage directed at Israel, a senior administration official said Washington would strive to keep Arab states committed to the peace process.
"There will be tensions here, but the real key will be keeping political support for the talks intact," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "That will be our challenge.''
The immediate focus of the international community, however, is now squarely on Israel's blockade of Gaza, which had slid into the background of international issues.
On Monday, world leaders decried the interception of the pro-Palestinian convoy, which was attempting to bring food, medical supplies, clothing and construction supplies to the impoverished territory.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy criticized Israel's "disproportionate use of force." U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned the violence. The European Union's foreign affairs chief, Catherine Ashton, said the bloc was deeply concerned, and she called on Israel to conduct an inquiry. British Foreign Secretary William Hague deplored the killings and called for an end to the Gaza blockade.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu called the raid "banditry and piracy" on the high seas and "murder conducted by a state." Turkey, whose citizens accounted for more than half the flotilla's passengers and which has been an ally of Israel, recalled its ambassador to Israel and warned of further actions.
Ma Zhaoxu, China's Foreign Ministry spokesman, said his nation "is appalled and condemns the Israeli navy's attack on the Turkish fleet shipping humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip."
Greece, Egypt, Sweden, Spain and Denmark summoned Israel's ambassadors, demanding explanations for the violence. Greece suspended a military exercise with Israel and postponed a visit by Israel's air force chief. Germany called for an immediate investigation but was careful not to directly place blame, adding that it was seeking information on six German citizens believed to have been aboard the ships.
Riot police used tear gas to drive back hundreds of protesters demonstrating outside the Israeli Embassy in Paris. There were also demonstrations in the U.S., Britain, Italy, Sweden, Norway, Cyprus and more than 20 cities in Greece.
At the United Nations, Palestinians and Arabs, backed by a number of Security Council members, called for Israel to lift the blockade on Gaza, immediately release the seized ships and activists, and allow them to deliver their goods.