JERUSALEM, (Reuters) – Angry Turks mourned activists killed in Israel’s seizure of a Gaza-bound aid ship, as Israel deflected U.N. demands for an independent international inquiry by offering to conduct its own probe with outside observers.
Turkey continued to fume over the killing of nine of its nationals, one of whom also held U.S. citizenship. Thousands thronged an Istanbul funeral for eight of the pro-Palestinian activists who died in Monday’s naval commando raid.
The coffins were draped in Turkish and Palestinian flags. “Turkey will never forget such an attack on its ships and its people in international waters. Turkey’s ties with Israel will never be the same again,” President Abdullah Gul said of once-close relations with a strategic ally.
Turkish and foreign pro-Palestinian activists from the ship levelled charges of “war crimes” at the Israeli marines who stormed the cruise liner Mavi Marmara and five other vessels in an aid flotilla for the blockaded Gaza Strip.
Witness accounts from activists returning home after being released by Israel contradicted the official Israeli account that the soldiers fired only in self defence after trying non-lethal methods.
The head of a Turkish charity that organised the flotilla carrying relief supplies said activists had grabbed guns from 10 marines in self-defence and thrown the weapons overboard without having fired them. “We told our friends on board: ‘We will die, become martyrs, but never let us be shown… as the ones who used guns’,” said Bulent Yildirim, chairman of the Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief.
Video showed commandos being winched onto the ship’s deck from helicopters only to be outnumbered and set upon with clubs by activists.
Footage also showed a man with a knife stabbing a commando and the military said activists seized two pistols from the boarding party and shot and wounded two of the commandos. “Once the soldiers saw knives, metal rods, chains and broken bottles and they were shot at, they shot back and killed nine of them,” said Israeli military spokesman Arye Shalicar.
Israel says the four-year-old blockade is to prevent the Palestinian territory’s Hamas Islamist rulers bringing in Iranian long-range rockets. The United Nations, the European Union and Arab states say it has caused a humanitarian disaster.
Amid a global outcry, which included Turkey recalling its ambassador in Tel Aviv, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden suggested an Israeli probe with international involvement, a proposal embraced by Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. “I am in favour of an investigation. We have enough high-level legal experts … if they want to take on observers from the outside, they can invite observers,” Lieberman said on Israel Radio. “I propose we use South Korea as an example,” Lieberman said, referring to an investigation launched by Seoul that included experts from the United States, Australia, Britain and Sweden, after the sinking of one of its warships in March.
Last September, Israel was stung by a U.N. inquiry into the three-week offensive it launched in the Gaza Strip in December 2008 which found evidence that its forces committed war crimes, allegations Israeli leaders denied.
Further confrontation at sea loomed on the horizon.
The MV Rachel Corrie, a converted merchant ship bought by pro-Palestinian activists and named after an American woman killed by an Israeli bulldozer in the Gaza Strip in 2003, expected to be off Gaza’s coast by Saturday, a crew member said.
Lieberman said Israel would not allow its Gaza blockade to be breached. “No ship will reach Gaza. The Rachel Corrie will not reach Gaza,” he told Israel Radio. More accounts of Monday’s bloodshed emerged despite Israeli efforts to contain the damage by confiscating cameras and film of the incident.
Al-Jazeera television cameraman Andre Abu Khalil, who was on the Mavi Marmara, said that after the initial Israeli assault on the vessel, four Israeli troops, suffering from “fracture wounds”, were held below deck by the activists. He said other commandos, trying to scale the ship, opened fire to break up a human chain of about 20 Turkish men, who were using slingshots, water hoses and metal pipes to try to hold off the boarding party.
Abu Khalil said the line disintegrated after the troops shot one of the men in the neck and the other in the head. In all, the cameraman counted 40 wounded passengers, many with bullet wounds to the legs, apparently to disable them. Others were shot in the eyes, stomach and chest.
On the lower deck, Abu Khalil said, someone using a loudspeaker told the Israelis: “Your soldiers are fine and they’ll be released if you provide us with medical help for the wounded.”
An Israeli Arab legislator who participated in the flotilla acted as a mediator. She raised a white flag and wrote in Hebrew on a piece of cardboard, according to the cameraman. “We did not expect our soldiers to get into a situation where they would have to fight for their survival,” Shalicar said.
“We expected demonstrations on board — pushing, calling us whatever — and that a few radicals would try to beat us. But we were very much astonished by the violence of more than 50 to 70 radicals … it looked very well organised, not spontaneous.”
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made an unrepentant defence of the Gaza blockade, lambasting European and other governments for “hypocrisy” in challenging Israel’s efforts to prevent the Iranian-backed Islamists from arming.
In the occupied West Bank, U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell said the “tragedy of the last week” must not undermine indirect negotiations he is mediating between Israel and the Palestinians, which he said were making some progress.