Commandos claim they opened fire after coming under attack


ISRAELI RAID:DESPITE THE tragic consequences, there was widespread backing in Israel for the actions of the naval commandos who intercepted the international aid flotilla making its way to Gaza.

But despite the fact that it has been obvious for weeks that a maritime showdown was inevitable, it was clear that the Israeli forces were taken by surprise by the violent resistance from some of the activists aboard the main Turkish ship, the Marmara.

Expecting passive resistance, the first soldiers from the elite Shayetet 13 naval commando unit who were lowered from a helicopter at 4am yesterday on to the Turkish ship, were armed with paint ball guns in place of their usual rifles. They also had pistols but were under strict orders to only use them in life-threatening situations.

According to the version of events related by the commandos to Israeli military correspondents, within seconds of landing on the ship’s deck the troops were attacked by activists with iron bars, knives and bottles. The soldiers also claimed that they came under fire before shooting back.

Israel’s deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon said two pistols, believed to be weapons seized from the soldiers, were found during a search of the Marmara.

The soldiers claimed they opened fire in response to a “lynch”.

One of their colleagues was allegedly thrown from the upper to the lower deck, and another was surrounded after falling to the ground with head wounds.

Nine soldiers who took part in the operation were hospitalised; two of them with serious wounds. Some of them were treated for stab wounds.

Israel has intercepted humanitarian flotillas heading for Gaza in the past but has only ever encountered passive resistance.

Pro-Palestinian western activists connected to the Free Gaza movement, the main umbrella group behind efforts to break Israel’s blockade on Gaza, preach non-violent resistance. But on the Marmarawere hundreds of Turkish activists, many linked to Islamic organisations.

After consulting senior ministers and defence officials at home, prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu decided to cut short a visit to North America, cancelling today’s scheduled meeting with President Barack Obama.

Speaking after talks with Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper in Ottawa, Mr Netanyahu expressed regret over the loss of life, but defended Israel’s interception of the flotilla on the grounds that his soldiers were “mobbed, clubbed, beaten and stabbed”.

He said the self-defence by Israeli forces was necessary “or they would have been killed”.

The support for the military action was not wall to wall. Left-wing groups protested last night opposite the defence ministry in Tel Aviv.

The B’tselem human rights group called for an external inquiry into the decision to order the military to stop the boats.

There was also criticism that the troops were unprepared for the resistance they encountered and over the decision to intercept the flotilla in international waters.

The Israeli Arab community reacted angrily with violent protests and calls for a general strike. Israeli Arab politicians condemned what they termed the “massacre” and “Israeli terrorism”.