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Israel criticized over raid on Gaza flotilla

Accused of using disproportionate force, Israel defends its raid, saying its soldiers were ambushed as they boarded an aid ship in international waters. Activists say any skirmish was self-defense.

June 01, 2010|By Edmund Sanders, Los Angeles Times

After the raid, Israel's navy escorted the six vessels in the flotilla to the Israeli port of Ashdod, where the government had set up tents to accommodate the activists. Protesters were offered the choice of flying home immediately or facing arrest and imprisonment. By Monday evening, most were opting to be arrested, officials said, with as many as 600 activists from 40 nations still being held.

The Israeli military did not permit any of the detained passengers to speak to reporters or communicate with family members. The passengers include members of the European Parliament, journalists and artists.

No information had been released about the identities of those killed. Several dozen activists were being treated in Israeli hospitals.

Israeli officials Monday said their soldiers had expected moderate resistance and civil disobedience but instead encountered organized attacks the moment the commandos rappelled onto the Turkish-flagged Mavi Marmara, the lead ship in the flotilla, with more than 500 passengers.

"They beat us up with metal sticks and knives," said one Israeli commando, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Soldiers had been ordered to treat the raid as a "police action" and use only paintball rifles to control the crowds, according to a report by Ynet, an Israeli news website. But as the first soldiers boarded, they were quickly beset by protesters allegedly using switchblades, slingshots, deck chairs, marbles, metal balls and metal bars, military officials said.

According to the military, two protesters grabbed handguns from two commandos and began firing.

"There was live fire at some point against us," the commando said. "They were shooting at us from below deck."

At least one soldier was thrown from the top deck of the boat to the lower deck by activists, according the commando and video released by the military. Some soldiers jumped into the water to escape, the commando said.

At some point, military commanders authorized soldiers to use handguns against the crowds, military officials said.

"Soldiers acted appropriately in this situation," said the military's chief of staff, Gaby Ashkenazi. "Soldiers found themselves in a life-threatening situation and used their weapons."

Two soldiers suffered gunshot wounds and one was stabbed, officials said.

Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon called the flotilla an "armada of hate and violence" that launched a "premeditated and outrageous provocation."

Protest organizers gave a dramatically different version of events, insisting that activists were unarmed and that Israeli soldiers began shooting as soon as they boarded.

Leaders of Free Gaza, one of the pro-Palestinian groups that organized the flotilla, said Israeli soldiers launched an "illegal" night raid while the flotilla was still in international waters.

"They can spin it any way they want," said Greta Berlin, a Free Gaza leader, speaking from the group's office in Cyprus. "We're the civilians and they are the military. This was murder."

The group has been unable to contact its members since the attack began because Israel has jammed telephone signals.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat called Israel's action a "war crime," but he also told Al Jazeera television that he saw no need to pull out of peace negotiations being mediated by the U.S.

The Arab League, which represents 22 countries, released a statement assailing "this terrorist act" and called for an "urgent meeting," which is expected to be held Tuesday.

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri called the Israeli action "a dangerous and crazy step that would inflame the struggle in the region."

In Israel, opposition leaders rallied to support the government in a sign of national unity. But some Israelis called on the government to reevaluate the blockade.

"It's a crime,'' Israeli Arab lawmaker Ahmad Tibi said. "Israel feels like it lives above international law and can do whatever it wants."

But Ayalon, accusing some of the protesters of having links with terrorist groups, defended the boats' seizure.

"Allowing these ships to go in an illegal way to Gaza would have opened a corridor of smuggling arms and terrorists to Gaza," he said.

Israel has maintained a blockade against Gaza since 2007 to protest the territory's takeover by the Palestinian militant group Hamas.

edmund.sanders@latimes.com

Batsheva Sobelman of The Times' Jerusalem Bureau, Times staff writers Jeffrey Fleishman in Cairo and Peter Nicholas in Washington and special correspondent Meris Lutz in Beirut contributed to this report. Times wire services were also used.

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