14 Deaths Reported as Israel Attacks Aid Flotilla
By ISABEL KERSHNER
Published: May 31, 2010
JERUSALEM — The Israeli Navy attacked a flotilla carrying thousands of tons of supplies for Gaza on Monday morning, news agencies reported, killing at least 14 people and wounding at least 30.
The warships first intercepted the aid flotilla shortly before midnight on Sunday, surprising the boats in international waters, according to activists on one vessel. Israel had vowed not to let the flotilla reach the shores of Gaza, where the Islamic militant group Hamas holds sway.
Named the Freedom Flotilla, and led by the pro-Palestinian Free Gaza Movement and a Turkish organization, Insani Yardim Vakfi, the convoy of six cargo and passenger boats is the most ambitious attempt yet to break Israel’s three-year blockade of Gaza. About 600 passenegers were said to be aboard the vessels, including the 1976 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Mairead Corrigan-Maguire of Northern Ireland, and a Holocaust survivor, Hedy Epstein, 85.
Channel 10, a private station in Israel, quoted the Israeli Trade Minister, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, as saying between 14 and 16 people had been killed on one of the flotilla ships. He said on Israeli Army Radio that commandos boarded the ship by sliding down on ropes from a hovering helicopter, and were then struck by passengers with “batons and tools.”
“The moment someone tries to snatch your weapon, to steal your weapons, that’s where you begin to lose control,” Mr. Ben-Eliezer said, quoted by Reuters.
An Israeli television station reported 10 deaths, according to Reuters, an account that was confirmed on Army Radio, according to Bloomberg News. Israeli Radio reported three Israeli commandos had been lightly injured.
Three Israeli Navy missile boats left the Haifa naval base in northern Israel a few minutes after 9 p.m. local time on Sunday, planning to intercept the flotilla. After asking the captains of the boats to identify themselves, the navy told them they were approaching a blockaded area and asked them either to proceed to the Israeli port of Ashdod, north of Gaza, or to return to their countries of origin.
The activists responded that they would continue toward their destination, Gaza.
Speaking by satellite phone from the Challenger 1 boat, which has foreign legislators and other high-profile figures on board, a Free Gaza Movement leader, Huwaida Arraf, said: “We communicated to them clearly that we are unarmed civilians. We asked them not to use violence.”
Earlier Sunday, Ms. Arraf said the boats would keep trying to move forward “until they either disable our boats or jump on board.”
The Israeli Defense Forces said in an earlier statement that if the flotilla members ignored warnings to stop and continued toward Gaza “they will be arrested, brought to Israel’s shores and transferred to the Ministry of Interior and the immigration authorities so they can be sent back to their country of origin.”
“The security forces will take possession of the aid expected to be on board the flotilla,” the statement said, “and following a security check of the goods, the items will be transferred into the Gaza Strip.”
In Ankara, the Turkish capital, local TV stations showed angry protesters confronting police officers outside the Israeli consulate on Monday morning.