JERUSALEM (AP) – Israeli naval commandos stormed a flotilla of ships carrying aid and hundreds of pro-Palestinian activists to the blockaded Gaza Strip on Monday, killing nine passengers in a botched raid that provoked international outrage and a diplomatic crisis.
Dozens of activists and six Israeli soldiers were wounded in the bloody predawn confrontation in international waters. The violent takeover dealt yet another blow to Israel’s international image, already tarnished by war crimes accusations in Gaza and its 3-year-old blockade of the impoverished Palestinian territory.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanhayu canceled a much-anticipated meeting with President Barack Obama in Washington on Tuesday in a sign of just how gravely Israel viewed the international uproar. In Canada, Netanyahu announced he was rushing home.
Israel said it opened fire after its commandos were attacked by knives, clubs and live fire from two pistols wrested from soldiers after they rappelled from a helicopter to board one of the vessels. Late Monday, it released a grainy black-and-white video that it said supported its version of events.
Reaction was swift and harsh, with a massive protest in Turkey, Israel’s longtime Muslim ally, which unofficially supported the mission. Ankara announced it would recall its ambassador and call off military exercises with the Jewish state.
The U.N. Security Council scheduled an emergency meeting later Monday to hear a briefing on the incident, said Lebanon’s Deputy Ambassador Caroline Ziade, whose country holds the council presidency. The Arab League called for a meeting to discuss the issue Tuesday in Cairo.
WATCH IDF VIDEO OF THE INCIDENT
The showdown came at a sensitive time for Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. Netanyahu, who expressed his “full backing” for the military raid, had hoped to receive a high-profile expression of support from Obama after months of strained relations over Israeli settlement construction.
The White House said in a written statement that the United States “deeply regrets” the loss of life and injuries and was working to understand the circumstances surrounding this “tragedy.”
The activists were headed to Gaza to draw attention to the blockade, which Israel and Egypt imposed after the militant Hamas group seized the territory of 1.5 million Palestinians in 2007.
There were conflicting accounts of what happened early Monday, with activists claiming the Israelis fired first and Israel insisting its forces fired in self defense. Communications to the ships were cut shortly after the raid began, and activists were kept away from reporters after their boats were towed to the Israeli port of Ashdod.
Helicopters evacuated the wounded to Israeli hospitals, officials said. Three ships had reached port by early evening and some 80 activists had been removed without serious incident, the military said.
The footage filmed from Israeli aircraft and released by the military showed activists swarming around commandos after they descended from a helicopter by rope onto a boat carrying 600 passengers. Activists scuffled with the commandos and are seen throwing an object the military identified as a firebomb.
A commando who spoke to reporters on a naval vessel off the coast, identified only as “A,” said he and his comrades were taken off guard by a group of Arabic-speaking men when they rappelled onto the deck.
He said some of the soldiers were stripped of their helmets and equipment and thrown from the top deck to the lower deck, and that some had even jumped overboard to save themselves. At one point one of the activists seized one of the soldiers’ weapons and opened fire, the commando said.
A high-ranking naval official displayed a box confiscated from the boat containing switchblades, slingshots, metal balls and metal bats. “We prepared (the soldiers) to deal with peace activists, not to fight,” he said. Most of the dead were Turkish, he added.
Turkey’s NTV network showed activists beating one commando with sticks as he landed on one of the boats. Dr. Arnon Afek, deputy director of Chaim Sheba Medical Center outside Tel Aviv, said two commandos were brought in with gunshot wounds. Another had serious head wounds from an unspecified blow, Afek added.
Before communications to the boats were severed, a Turkish website showed video of pandemonium on board one of the vessels, with activists in orange life jackets running around as some tried to help an activist lying motionless on the deck. The site also showed video of an Israeli helicopter flying overhead and Israeli warships nearby.
Activists said Israeli naval commandos stormed the ships after ordering them to stop in international waters, about 80 miles (130 kilometers) from Gaza’s coast.
A reporter with the pan-Arab satellite channel Al-Jazeera, who was sailing on the Turkish ship leading the flotilla, said the Israelis fired at the vessel before boarding 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!”
At a news conference in Tel Aviv, Israel’s military chief of staff and navy commander said all of the violence was centered on the lead boat, the Mavi Marmara, which was carrying 600 of the 700 activists. Troops took over the five other boats without incident, military chief Gabi Ashkenazi said.
“To me it is clear without a doubt, judging by what I saw and what I heard in the first reports from the soldiers, that in light of the danger to human life this violence required the use of weapons,” Ashkenazi said.
Robin Churchill, a professor of international law at the University of Dundee in Scotland, said the Israeli commandos boarded the ship outside of Israel’s territorial waters.
“As far as I can see, there is no legal basis for boarding these ships,” Churchill said.
Many of the activists were from Europe.
At Barzilai hospital in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, a few activists trickled in under military escort. “They hit me,” said a Greek man, whose right arm was in a sling, calling the Israelis “pirates.” He did not give his name as he was led away. A second man, also Greek, wore a neck brace.
The European Union deplored what it called excessive use of force and demanded an investigation by Israel. It called the Gaza blockade “politically unacceptable,” and called for it to be lifted immediately.
Turkey and other nations called on the U.N. Security Council to convene in an emergency session about Israel.
Thousands marched in protest in Istanbul, some setting Israeli flags on fire after unsuccessfully trying to storm the Israeli consulate. Israel quickly advised to its citizens to avoid travel to Turkey. In Jordan, hundreds of protesters demanded that their government break diplomatic relations with the Jewish state.
Israeli security forces were on alert across the country for possible protests, but no serious unrest were reported.
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. Holocaust survivor Hedy Epstein, 85, did not join the flotilla as she had planned.
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.
In Uganda, Ban condemned the deaths and called for a “thorough” investigation. “Israel must provide an explanation,” he said.
Before the ships set sail from waters off Cyprus on Sunday, Israel had urged the flotilla not to try to breach the blockade and offered to transfer some of the cargo to Gaza from an Israeli port, following a security inspection.
Organizers included the IHH, an Islamic humanitarian group that is based in Istanbul but operates in several other countries. Israel outlawed the group in 2008 because of its ties to Hamas.
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.
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.