Israel kills international activists en route to Gaza with aid

Between 14 and 20 people were killed early this morning as Israeli Navy forces raided the Freedom Flotilla convoy heading for Gaza with humanitarian aid and messages of solidarity.

The Freedom Flotilla fleet, made up of six boats with about 700 activists on board, set sail on 24 May from Cyprus in the direction of Gaza. Passengers include members of parliament from around the world, human rights and trade union activists, and journalists.

In the first hours of the day today, activists reported through a satellite feed on a Turkish boat in the fleet that Israeli commandos dropped from helicopters and started shooting, killing two people immediately. The attack took place in international waters, 120km from the Israeli coast.

A YouTube video showed the Israeli navy addressing the Turkish boat on the Flotilla fleet ahead of the attack. “You are approaching an area of hostilities which is under naval blockade. The Gaza area, coastal region and Gaza harbor are closed to all maritime traffic,” said the Israeli commandant in his call, to which the Turkish boat response was heard as saying, “negative, negative. Our destination is Gaza.”

“The last person I heard from on the boats was my wife and that was ten hours ago,” Adam Shapiro, one of the organizers of the fleet told Al-Masry Al-Youm. “She told me that the Turkish ship was under attack and that Israeli helicopters were all over the ship she was on. Later, she said she saw two Israeli ships following the one she was on.”

Palestinian activists contacted in Haifa said that the boats were taken for a short period to the Haifa port before they were moved to another port, Ashdod, where passengers are expected to be detained.

Shapiro and fellow organizers of the fleet expressed surprise at the use of force against civilians, although they expected Israeli intervention.

“In the lead up to the mission, Israel said that they are preparing elite soldiers for it. If we take them at their word, then we have to believe that this was no accident and that such highly trained and skilled commandos would not have shot without orders to do so,” Shapiro said.

Shapiro called for an independent investigation into the attack. “There must be accountability. If there cannot be trials then there should be boycotts; official ones and grassroots ones.”

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said in a press conference today that Israeli forces attacked the fleet as a in response to assaults on Israeli soldiers by armed activists. He added that the Gaza Strip is not subject to an Israeli blockade, but to a Hamas-led blockade.

“The boats were unarmed. There were media and members of parliament on the Turkish boat. None of the images broadcast live from the boat during the attack show any of the passengers holding anything that could resemble a weapon,” said Shapiro. “The first account that went out during the assault on the ship was that Israeli soldiers fired as they came on board the ship.”

The fleet is organized jointly by various pro-Palestinian groups including the Free Gaza Movement, the Turkish Relief Foundation, the Perdana Global Peace Organization, and the European Campaign to End the Siege on Gaza.

The convoy intended to be one of the largest attempts to break the maritime blockade of Gaza after several previous smaller-scale fleets. “Although we were happy with the first trips, it was bittersweet, knowing that our small boats and symbolic amounts of relief paled in comparison to what was really needed in Gaza,” said Mary Hughes, one of the organizers, ahead of the trip. “Now, we finally feel we are helping to organize a powerful action, one with the potential to translate into a sustained campaign of much more effective challenges to Israel’s brutal siege.”

Many Western governments condemned the attack on the fleet and summoned Israeli ambassadors for consultations. Egypt’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs condemned the targeting of civilians, called for the end of the Israeli blockade on Gaza, and summoned the Israeli ambassador.

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