The ship, Mavi Marmara, was attacked by Israeli forces early on Monday morning, with marines storming aboard from dinghies and rappelling down from helicopters. Information so far has been sketchy because Israel imposed a media blackout. Israeli government sources said "more than 10" activists died. Israeli media has spoken of up to 19 dead and dozens of injuries. Unconfirmed news reports said nine Turks have been killed.
Following the raid on the aid convoy, Israel confiscated the cargo as well as the vessels and docked them in the Israeli port of Ashdod. Dozens of passengers were arrested, news reports said. Further information regarding the fate of the wounded and the remaining passengers could not be obtained because of Israel's media blackout. Turkey demanded an immediate and detailed account from Israel on the state of the Turkish citizens in Israeli custody and told Israel to send home the injured Turks.
Israel had warned that it would intercept the convoy, which was carrying some 10,000 tons of humanitarian aid. There were hundreds of international activists aboard the ships, including a Nobel peace laureate and a Holocaust survivor. But despite the Israeli warnings, the violence of the response shocked the world, sparking outrage in the Middle East, within the United Nations and in Europe. The United States, Israel's key ally, however, was exceptionally cautious, saying only that it regretted the loss of life and that it was looking into the “tragedy.”
In addition irreversibly damaging Israel's ties with Turkey, the bloody interception dealt a fatal blow to efforts to advance tentative peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians and is likely to increase international pressure on Israel to end its three-year-long blockade of Gaza.
"This attack is another sign of the reckless levels that the Israeli government's violent policies have reached," Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç, who presided over an emergency meeting of the government and senior military commanders earlier in the day, said in a televised speech. The government, which had disassociated itself from the aid convoy, saying it was a nongovernmental initiative, received criticism over the way it handled the entire incident, with opposition politicians and media commentators laying the blame on decision-makers for not offering any protection to the aid ships, knowing that they would be intercepted by Israeli forces.
“I was expecting an intervention,” said Murat Mercan, the chairman of Parliament's Foreign Affairs Commission. “But, I was not expecting bloodshed, the use of arms and bullets. Israel is engaged in activity that will severely hurt its image,” he added.
Turkish-Israeli relations have long been tense, mostly as a result of the Israeli blockade of Gaza, but a violent attack on Turkish civilians in international waters is worse than any worst case scenario that was ever imagined. Angry Turks attempted to storm Israeli Consulate in İstanbul and then marched to Taksim Square in an angry protest, prompting ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) Deputy Chairman Hüseyin Çelik to warn against “being carried away by emotion” and calling for prudence.
The international community earlier warned Israel not to engage in an offensive against civilian vessels carrying peaceful activists whose aim was to break the three-year-long economic blockade on Gaza which has severely plagued Gazans. The United Nations, the European Parliament, the International Committee of the Red Cross and Amnesty International have all drawn attention to the people's long plight in Gaza, where Gazans, including children and the sick, are deprived even of their basic needs.
Although Israel says it warned the ships to turn around and that its soldiers were attacked by passengers on board, it is unlikely to receive international sympathy. European leaders expressed “profound shock” over the bloody interception and the UN put the blame on Israel.
United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Robert Serry and the head of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, Filippo Grandi, expressed shock at the killings aboard boats carrying humanitarian supplies in international waters. "Such tragedies are entirely avoidable if Israel heeds the repeated calls of the international community to end its counterproductive and unacceptable blockade of Gaza," they said in a joint statement.
“It's disgusting that they have come on board and attacked civilians. We are civilians,” said Greta Berlin, a spokeswoman for the Free Gaza movement, which organized the flotilla.
“We were not expecting such an operation in international waters,” Ömer Faruk Korkmaz, an official of the Humanitarian Aid Association (İHH), which led the aid shipment in Turkey, said. “Israel has been caught red-handed and the international community will not forgive it.” Korkmaz said the ship was being escorted to Haifa.
Israel, who declared that five of its soldiers were wounded during the operation, was defiant after the incident, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announcing that the attack had his full support. “We made repeated offers that they should bring the boats to the port of Ashdod and from there we guaranteed that all humanitarian cargo would be transferred to the people of Gaza,” Mark Regev, a spokesman for Netanyahu said.
Mideast peace a distant dream
Israeli officials said Prime Minister Netanyahu was considering whether to cancel a White House meeting on Tuesday with US President Barack Obama and fly home early. Those talks had been expected to focus on US efforts to advance tentative negotiations with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. But peace talks, mediated by Obama's envoy, seem unlikely to continue for the time being.
For Israel, storming the ships after they ignored warnings to turn back was part of a strategy of isolating the Islamist Hamas in Gaza in the hope of tilting Palestinian sympathies toward US-backed Abbas. But Abbas's credibility has been undermined by Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, another territory where Palestinians want statehood, and he can ill-afford to stand by as outsiders bleed on behalf of Gaza's 1.5 million Palestinians.
The Palestinian president described the Israel's pre-dawn interception as a “massacre” and declared three days of mourning in the Palestinian territories.
Hamas, which has largely fallen from world headlines since its war with Israel some 18 months ago, on the other hand, welcomed what it described as a win-win situation from the standoff at sea. Hamas government head Ismail Haniyeh said of the activists: "You were heroes, whether you reached [Gaza] or not."
Israeli forces were on high alert on the Gazan, Syrian and Lebanese borders as well as around Jerusalem, the occupied West Bank and areas of northern Israel, where much of the country's Arab population lives. Israeli officials denied reports that a leading Arab Israeli Islamist had been killed on the convoy.
Across the Middle East, anger against Israel was mounting. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said the action was “inhumane.” Syria, which hosts the exiled leadership of Hamas, called for an emergency meeting of the Arab League.
"Israel's kidnapping of civilian hostages from international waters and their arrest constitutes a barbaric aggression and Israel bears complete responsibility if anything happens to them," Hezbollah lawmaker Hassan Fadlallah told Reuters.
"It's going to be a big scandal, no doubt about it," Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, the Israeli trade minister, who is known to be a moderate in Netanyahu's cabinet, told Reuters Insider in an interview in Doha, where he was on a visit to Qatar, one of the few Arab states where Israeli officials can travel. Ben-Eliezer said the whole thing was a “provocation from its beginning” and added: "We tried our best to block the way. Everyone can judge us. When there is blood, you cannot explain anything."