JERUSALEM – Israel’s prime minister claimed that the Turkish activists who battled Israeli naval commandos in a deadly clash last week prepared for the fight ahead of time, before boarding the ship in a different city from the rest of the passengers.
Benjamin Netanyahu’s charges highlight Israel’s frantic efforts to portray the activists as terrorists and counter a wave of harsh international condemnation that has left the Jewish state isolated and at odds with some of its closest allies.
Last Monday’s operation, in which nine activists were killed aboard a ship headed to the blockaded Gaza Strip, damaged Israel’s ties with Turkey – its main Muslim ally – and brought heavy pressure on Israel to lift the 3-year closure of Hamas-ruled Gaza.
Netanyahu told his Cabinet that “dozens of thugs” from “an extremist, terrorism-supporting” organization had readied themselves for the arrival of the naval commandos.
“This group boarded separately in a different city, organized separately, equipped itself separately and went on deck under different procedures,” he said. “The clear intent of this hostile group was to initiate a violent clash with (Israeli) soldiers.”
Videos released by the military have shown a crowd of men attacking several naval commandos as they landed on a ship from a helicopter, beating the soldiers with clubs and other objects and hurling one soldier overboard.
The military has displayed pictures of knives, slingshots and metal rods confiscated from the activists, and used video seized from security cameras – and reporters – on board the ship showing a group of young men brandishing clubs and other weapons ahead of the arrival of the soldiers.
On Sunday, the Turkish daily Hurriyet showed new pictures taken by unidentified people of wounded Israeli commandos, including some with bloodied faces. Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said the images seemed to corroborate Israel’s version of the events.
“It shows that our boarding party in fact did face deadly violence from the hard-core Islamist activists on the boat … and that our boarding party was forced to respond,” he said. “Had they not, they would have been killed.”
The fighting took place on the Turkish-flagged Mavi Marmara, a ship organized by the IHH, a Turkish Islamic charity that Israel has outlawed because of its alleged ties to Hamas. The group is not on the U.S. State Department list of terror organizations, however.
In Turkey, IHH head Bulent Yildirim said all passengers boarded the ship in the Turkish port of Antalya, and rejected suggestions that those who clashed with the soldiers were trained militants.
“Take a look at who was killed. They had pot bellies. They were old. They were young. Who would believe that they received special training?” he said.
Huwaida Arraf, a leader of the Free Gaza Movement, which organized the flotilla, denounced Netanyahu’s claims as “another pack of lies.” Arraf said all the passengers were screened for weapons, and that partners in the mission, including IHH, agreed not to bring weapons on board.
On Sunday, Netanyahu rejected a proposal by U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon for an international commission to investigate the raid, officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
They added that Netanyahu was open to a probe but did not agree with the exact format suggested by the U.N. chief.
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