Israeli commando raid on Gaza aid convoy kills 10

 

Israeli commandos stormed Gaza-bound aid ships today, killing at least 10 pro-Palestinian activists and unleashing a diplomatic crisis.

The violent end to a Turkish-backed attempt to break Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip by six ships carrying some 600 people and relief supplies raised a storm of protest across the Middle East and far beyond.

The flotilla, carrying 10,000 tonnes of aid, left the coast of Cyprus yesterday and had been due to arrive in Gaza this morning.

However, the Turkish-flagged Mavi Marmara ship, from the pro-Islamic Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief (IHH), and the Free Gaza Movement’s Challenger 1 were boarded by Israeli forces in international waters, 60km off the coast of Gaza. The IHH claimed at least 15 people were killed, most of them Turkish nationals.

Internet footage has emerged showing pandemonium on board the Mavi Marmara, with activists in orange lifejackets running around as others tried to help a colleague lying on the deck.

Israeli authorities accused the crew of one of the ships attempting to stop a boarding party, attacking commandos with handguns, knives and metal bars.

The Israeli army claimed one an activist seized a gun from the boarding party. A military spokesman said two pistols were found on the captured vessels. Independent accounts of the clash were not available since the navy cut ship-to-shore communications and Israel imposed military censorship on reports of the operation.

The navy has escorted the ships to the Israeli port of Ashdod. The Israeli government said all those aboard will be deported.

The use of lethal force angered Israel's long-time Muslim ally Turkey, which had supported the convoy. The United Nations condemned the violence and demanded an explanation from Israel, European Union demanded an inquiry and France said it was "profoundly shocked".

The UN Security Council held an emergency meeting this evening to discuss the incident. The White House said the US "deeply regrets the loss of life and injuries sustained" in the storming of the aid ship. A spokesman said US officials were "currently working to understand the circumstances surrounding this tragedy".

The convoy was organised, among others, by a Turkish human rights organisation, the Istanbul-based Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief (IHH). Turkey had urged Israel to allow it safe passage and said the 10,000 tonnes of aid the convoy was carrying was humanitarian.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin said he was "gravely concerned" over the incident. He said the department was seeking to confirm the safety of the

Irish nationals who sailed with the Turkish-led flotilla. "The reports of up to 15 people killed and 50 injured, if confirmed, would constitute a totally unacceptable response by the Israeli military to what was a humanitarian mission attempting to deliver much needed supplies to the people of Gaza."

Israel's attempts to maintain its three-year-old blockade on the Hamas-ruled enclave while avoiding bloodshed that would spark an international outcry collapsed in spectacular fashion.

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas accused Israel of committing a “massacre”. He declared three days of official mourning for the dead.

Israel's deputy foreign minister, Danny Ayalon, blamed the activists for the violence and branded them allies of Hamas and al-Qaeda. Had they got through, he said, they would have opened an arms smuggling route to Gaza. There was no question of easing the blockade, he said.

Israeli forces are on high alert on the Gaza, Syrian and Lebanese borders as well as around Jerusalem, the occupied West Bank and areas of northern Israel where much of the country's Arab population lives. Israeli officials denied reports that a leading Israeli Arab Islamist had been killed on the convoy.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is in Canada, said this evening he would cancel a White House meeting tomorrow with US president Barack Obama and fly home early to deal with the crisis. The talks had been expected to focus on US efforts to advance tentative negotiations with Mr Abbas.

Syria, which hosts the exiled leadership of Gaza's ruling Hamas movement, called for an emergency Arab League meeting to discuss the incident.

In the Gaza Strip, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh described the Israeli action as piracy and praised the activists as heroes. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Israel's interception of the ships was "inhuman".

Greta Berlin, a spokeswoman for the Free Gaza Movement that organised the convoy, said: "How could the Israeli military attack civilians like this? Do they think that because they can attack Palestinians indiscriminately they can attack anyone?"

Israel's allies have been critical of the embargo on the 1.5 million people of Gaza, which Israel says is aimed at preventing arms supplies from reaching Hamas.

The United Nations and Western powers have urged Israel to ease its restrictions to prevent a humanitarian crisis and allow for postwar reconstruction. Israel says food, medicine and medical equipment are allowed in regularly.