JERUSALEM – Israeli commandos rappelled down to an aid flotilla sailing to thwart a Gaza blockade on Monday, clashing with pro-Palestinian activists on the lead ship in a botched raid that left at least nine passengers dead.
Bloodied passengers sprawled on the deck and troops dived into the sea to save themselves during several hours of hand-to-hand fighting that injured dozens of activists and six soldiers. Hundreds of activists – many of whom were apparently Turkish – were towed from the international waters to Israeli detention centers and hospitals.
International condemnation was swift and harsh as Israel scrambled to explain how what was meant to be a simple takeover of a civilian vessel went so badly awry.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu abruptly canceled a planned meeting with President Barack Obama in Washington to rush home.
U.S. officials expressed regret at the loss of life but stopped short of criticizing Israel until full details of the incident were released.
Elsewhere, however, international leaders condemned Israel’s interception of the pro-Palestinian convoy, which was attempting to break through Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip and bring food, medical supplies, clothing and construction supplies to the impoverished territory.
As the U.N. Security Council held an emergency meeting, French President Nicolas Sarkozy criticized Israel’s “disproportionate use of force.”
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for a “thorough investigation” into the violence, saying he was “shocked” by the reports.
Turkey, a onetime ally of Israel, recalled its ambassador to Israel and warned of further actions. The British foreign secretary demanded an end to the blockade of Gaza, and Jordan called Israel’s raid a “heinous crime.”
The global reaction appeared likely to increase pressure to end the embargo that has plunged Gaza’s 1.5 million residents deeper into poverty.
Most of the information about what happened on the single ship where violence broke out came from Israel, which cut off all communication to and from the activists and provided testimony and video evidence that its soldiers came under attack by activists armed with metal rods, knives, slingshots and two pistols snatched from the troops.
The high-seas confrontation was a nightmare scenario for Israel, which insisted its soldiers were simply unprepared for what awaited them on the Mavi Marmara, the ship carrying 600 of the 700 activists headed for Gaza. Instead of carrying their regular automatic rifles, the Israelis said they went in with nonlethal paintball guns and pistols they never expected to use.
Israel intercepted the six ships carrying some 10,000 tons of aid for the isolated seaside territory, which has been blockaded by Israel for three years, with Egypt’s cooperation. The Israeli government had urged the flotilla not to try to breach the blockade before the ships set sail from waters off Cyprus on Sunday and offered to take some aid in for them.
An al-Jazeera journalist said Israel fired at the vessel before boarding it. In one Web posting, a Turkish television reporter on the boat cried out, “These savages are killing people here, please help” – a broadcast that ended with a voice shouting in Hebrew, “Everybody shut up!”
Al-Jazeera said that eight staff members were detained while covering the story and asked for the Israeli government to release them immediately.
The military said naval commandos descending from a helicopter onto the deck of a Turkish-flagged ship were assaulted by armed activists. Military footage showed activists swarming around the commandos as they rappelled from a helicopter one by one, hitting them with sticks until they fell to the deck, throwing one off the ship and hurling what the military said was a firebomb.
Speaking alongside the Canadian prime minister, Netanyahu expressed “regret” for the loss of life but said the soldiers “had to defend themselves, defend their lives, or they would have been killed.”
A spokeswoman for the Free Gaza movement, which organized the flotilla, said the group’s goal – beyond just bringing supplies to the impoverished territory – was to shatter the blockade.
“What we’re trying to do is open a sea lane between Gaza and the rest of the world,” Greta Berlin said in Cyprus. “We’re not trying to be a humanitarian mission. We’re trying to say to the world, ‘You have no right to imprison a million and a half Palestinians.’ ”
Israel’s international image had already taken a beating from allegations that it committed war crimes during its 2008-2009 winter war in Gaza, and from widespread global opposition to the blockade. Hamas was also accused of rights violations in that conflict.
Relations with Turkey, a key supporter of the aid flotilla but also until recently Israel’s staunchest ally in the Muslim world, were badly damaged by Monday’s events. Ankara announced it would recall its ambassador and call off all military exercises with Israel. About 10,000 Turks marched in protest.
At the U.N., Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu called the raid “murder conducted by a state” and demanded an immediate Israeli apology, international legal action and an end to the blockade.
The bloody showdown came at a sensitive time for Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. Netanyahu had hoped to receive a high-profile expression of support from Obama after months of strained relations over Israeli settlement construction.
Israel’s immediate concern on Monday was what to do about the boats and their passengers. It ferried the wounded to hospitals by helicopter and towed the six ships to port, giving each of the activists a choice of deportation or detention.
By late Monday, about 150 of the activists – most from Turkey – had been taken off the boats, Israeli Interior Ministry spokeswoman Sabine Haddad said, adding the process would continue into today. She said about 30 had agreed to be deported, and the rest would be detained.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas condemned the Israeli “massacre” and declared three days of mourning across the West Bank.