Israeli warships HAVE attacked at least one of the six ships

Last update 443 (gmt) 31 May 2010 protest moving off to the Israeli embassy now. Live updates from Flotilla solidarity demo

The Israeli military’s attack on the Free Gaza Flotilla has sparked demonstrations in London today. Even before the massacre, there were demonstrations outside 10 Downing Street demanding freedom of passage for the aid ships.

Following the raid, which killed at least 20 peace activists in a commando assault in international waters, demonstrators began gathering at 11am, with both the Stop the War Coalition and ISM London calling a protest for 2pm at Downing Street.  The demonstration has now left Downing Street and is heading for the Israeli embassy.

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Pre-massacre demonstration

The Freedom Flotilla is part of a recent wave of activism highlighting the brutal conditions faced by the people of the Gaza Strip.  Gaza has now been facing a blockade of essential supplies since the 2007 election of Hamas.  British diplomat John Holmes, the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, said last year that less than 25% of the minimum necessary supplies are making it into Gaza every day due to the blockade maintained by the occupying Israeli forces.

The Israeli armed forces have a history of unprovoked attacks on unarmed activists acting in solidarity with the people of Palestine. During the last major wave of pro-Palestinian solidarity activism, in 2003-2004, Israeli forces repeatedly killed unarmed activists and journalists covering the occupation. As the Israeli foreign office has already claimed that the peace activists on board the aid ships attacked Israeli commandos, it’s worth remembering that they were less than truthful about the circumstances around at least 3 separate killings of international activists and a journalist: Rachel Corrie, Tom Hurndall, Brian Avery, and James Miller.

Israeli naval ships flanking the Mavi Marmara.
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Israeli soldiers aboard the Mavi Marmara.
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A passenger aboard the Mavi Marmara carries a bloody stretcher.

Early this morning under the cover of darkness Israeli soldiers stormed the lead ship of the six-vessel Freedom Flotilla aid convoy in international waters and killed and injured dozens of civilians aboard. All the ships were violently seized by Israeli forces, but hours after the attack fate of the passengers aboard the other ships remained unknown.

The Mavi Marmara was carrying around 600 activists when Israeli warships flanked it from all sides as soldiers descended from helicopters onto the ship’s deck. Reports from people on board the ship backed up by live video feeds broadcast on Turkish TV show that Israeli forces used live ammunition against the civilian passengers, some of whom resisted the attack with sticks and other items.

The Freedom Flotilla was organized by a coalition of groups that sought to break the Israeli-led siege on the Gaza Strip that began in 2007. Together, the flotilla carried 700 civilian activists from around 50 countries and over 10,000 tons of aid including food, medicines, medical equipment, reconstruction materials and equipment, as well as various other necessities arbitrarily banned by Israel.

As of 5:00pm Jerusalem time most media were reporting that up to 20 people had been killed, and many more injured. However, Israel was still withholding the exact numbers and names of the dead and injured. Passengers aboard the ships who had been posting Twitter updates on the Flotilla’s progress had not been heard from since before the attack and efforts to contact passengers by satellite phone were unsuccessful. The Arabic- and English-language networks of Al-Jazeera lost contact with their half dozen staff traveling with the flotilla.

News of the massacre on board the Freedom Flotilla began to emerge around dawn in the eastern Mediterranean first on the live feed from the ship, social media, Turkish television, and Al-Jazeera. Israeli media were placed under strict military censorship, and reported primarily from foreign sources. However, by the morning the Jerusalem Post reported that the Israeli soldiers who boarded the flotilla in international waters were fired upon by passengers. Quoting anonymous military sources, the Jerusalem Post claimed that the flotilla passengers had set-up a “well planned lynch.” (“IDF: Soldiers were met by well-planned lynch in boat raid“)

The Israeli daily Haaretz also reported that the Israeli soldiers were “attacked” when trying to board the flotilla. (“At least 10 activists killed in Israel Navy clashes onboard Gaza aid flotilla“)

This narrative of passengers “attacking” the Israeli soldiers was quickly adopted by the Associated Press and carried across mainstream media sources in the United States, including the Washington Post. (“Israeli army: More than 10 killed on Gaza flotilla“)

Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon stated in a Monday morning press conference that the Israeli military was acting in “self-defense.” He claimed that “At least two guns were found” and that the “incident” was still ongoing. Ayalon also claimed that the Flotilla organizers were “well-known” and were supported by and had connections to “international terrorist organizations.”

It is unclear how anyone could credibly adopt an Israeli narrative of “self-defense” when Israel had carried out an unprovoked armed assault on civilian ships in international waters. Surely any right of self-defense would belong to the passengers on the ship. Nevertheless, the Freedom Flotilla organizers had clearly and loudly proclaimed their ships to be unarmed civilian vessels on a humanitarian mission.

The Israeli media strategy appeared to be to maintain censorship of the facts such as the number of dead and injured, the names of the victims and on which ships the injuries occurred, while aggressively putting out its version of events which is based on a dual strategy of implausibly claiming “self-defense” while demonizing the Freedom Flotilla passengers and intimating that they deserved what they got.

As news spread around the world, foreign governments began to react. Greece and Turkey, which had many citizens aboard the Flotilla, immediately recalled their ambassadors from Tel Aviv. Spain strongly condemned the attack. France’s foreign minister Bernard Kouchner expressed “profound shock.” The European Union’s foreign minister Catherine Ashton called for an “enquiry.”

What should be clear is this: no one can claim to be surprised by what the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights correctly termed a “hideous crime.” Israel had been openly threatening a violent attack on the Flotilla for days, but complacency, complicity and inaction, specifically from Western and Arab governments once more sent the message that Israel could act with total impunity.

There is no doubt that Israel’s massacre of 1,400 people, mostly civilians, in Gaza in December 2008/January 2009 was a wake up call for international civil society to begin to adopt boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel similar to those applied to apartheid-era South Africa.

Yet governments largely have remained complacent and complicit in Israel’s ongoing violence and oppression against Palestinians and increasingly international humanitarian workers and solidarity activists, not only in Gaza, but throughout historic Palestine. We can only imagine that had former Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni indeed been arrested for war crimes in Gaza when a judge in London issued a warrant for her arrest, had the international community begun to implement the recommendations of the UN-commissioned Goldstone Report, had there been a much firmer response to Israel’s assassination of a Hamas official in Dubai, it would not have dared to act with such brazenness.

As protest and solidarity actions begin in Palestine and across the world, this is the message they must carry: enough impunity, enough complicity, enough Israeli massacres and apartheid. Justice now.

At 4.30am local time, armed Israeli troops boarded one of the boats in the Free Gaza Flotilla which was carrying construction supplies, medical equipment and schoolbooks to Gaza, in an attempt to break the siege which Israel imposed on Gaza over 1080 days ago.

35 UK citizens were aboard the boats, which carried activists from over 50 countries. The boats were reportedly 80 miles off the coast of Gaza, and many on the boats were said to be asleep when Israeli troops opened fire with machine guns. Many wounded have reportedly been taken to Israeli hospitals. Israel is on a media offensive claiming that its troops were attacked first. Even if it were true, they would need to explain why they were boarding a ship flying a Turkish flag in International waters.

A demo was held outside Downing Street yesterday afternoon and Stop the War had already called a demo for this afternoon at 2pm outside Downing Street.

ISM London stated that they were “horrified” by the incident but also stated that “We’re not surprised that the attacks took place in International waters, or that they were a reckless, murderous over-reaction to unarmed ships carrying medical supplies and building materials. Israel routinely meets non violent Palestinian protest with lethal violence.”

Israeli commandos descending from helicopters stormed the six-boat flotilla in the early hours of Monday (31) morning, while it was in international waters, about 90 miles (150km) from Gaza, where Israel has no jurisdiction.

The death toll rose steadily from around 2am. Dozens more have been injured. European and Turkish parliamentarians, and citizens from countries including the USA, Malaysia and across Europe were on board the flotilla, attempting to break the siege.

Betty Hunter, General Secretary of Palestine Solidarity Campaign, said:

‘Israel’s actions today amount to piracy. What kind of country murders unarmed civilians in order to stop humanitarian supplies reaching a starving population? The British government failed to defend its citizens on board the flotilla, but now its silence must end, and it must condemn Israel in the strongest terms. Its moral and political obligations lie with those who peacefully attempt to deliver aid, not with a country which repeatedly violates international law, and has now murdered innocent and unarmed carriers of aid.’

Fighting broke out between the activists and the masked Israeli troops, who rappelled on to deck from helicopters before dawn. A spokesman for the flotilla, Greta Berlin, said she had been told that ten people had been killed and dozens wounded, accusing Israeli troops of indiscriminately shooting at “unarmed civilians”. But an Israeli radio station said that between 14 and 16 were dead in a continuing operation.

“How could the Israeli military attack civilians like this?” Ms Berlin said. “Do they think that because they can attack Palestinians indiscriminately they can attack anyone?

“We have two other boats. This is not going to stop us.”

The Israeli government’s handling of the confrontation was under intense international pressure even as it continued. The Israeli ambassador to Turkey, the base of one of the human rights organisation which organised the flotilla, was summoned by the foreign ministry in Ankara, as the Israeli consulate in Istanbul came under attack. One Israeli minister issued immediate words of regret. “The images are certainly not pleasant. I can only voice regret at all the fatalities,” Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, the trade and industry minister, told army radio. But he added that the commandoes had been attacked with batons and activists had sought to take their weapons off them. Israeli military sources said four of its men had been injured, one stabbed, and that they had been shot at.

“The flotilla’s participants were not innocent and used violence against the soldiers. They were waiting for the forces’ arrival,”

They were quoted by a news website as saying.

The flotilla had set sail on Sunday from northern, or Turkish, Cyprus. Six boats were led by the Mavi Marmara, which carried 600 activists from around the world, including Mairead Corrigan Maguire, the Northern Ireland peace protester who won a Nobel Prize in 1976. It came under almost immediate monitoring from Israeli drones and the navy, with two vessels flanking it in international waters. The flotilla, which had been warned that it would not be allowed to reach Gaza, attempted to slow and change course, hoping to prevent a confrontation until daylight, when the Israeli military action could be better filmed.

But in the early hours of this morning local time commandoes boarded from helicopters. The activists were not carrying guns, but television footage shown by al-Jazeera and Turkish television channels show hand-to-hand fighting, with activists wearing life-jackets striking commandoes with sticks. The Israeli army said its troops were assaulted with axes and knives. The television footage did not show firing but shots could be heard in the background. One man was shown lying unconscious on the deck, while another man was helped away. A woman wearing hijab, the Muslim headscarf, was seen carrying a stretcher covered in blood.

The al-Jazeera broadcast stopped with a voice shouting in Hebrew: “Everyone shut up”. Israel imposed its blockade on Gaza after the strip was taken over by the militant group Hamas in 2007. It has allowed some food and medical supplies through, but has prevented large-scale rebuilding following the bombardment and invasion of 2008-9. The flotilla is the latest in a series of attempts by activists to break through the blockade. The boats were carrying food and building supplies.

Activists said at least two of the other boats, one Greek and one Turkish, had been boarded from Israeli naval vessels. Activists said two of the other boats in the flotilla were American-flagged. The confrontation took place in international waters 80 miles off the Gaza coast. It was attacked by the head of the Hamas government in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh.

“We call on the Secretary-General of the U.N., Ban Ki-moon, to shoulder his responsibilities to protect the safety of the solidarity groups who were on board these ships and to secure their way to Gaza,” he said.

Turkish television meanwhile showed hundreds of protesters trying to storm the Israeli consulate in Istanbul. The incident will be particularly damaging for Israel’s relations with what had been seen as its closest ally in the Muslim world.

“By targeting civilians, Israel has once again shown its disregard for human life and peaceful initiatives,” a Turkish foreign ministry statement said. “We strongly condemn these inhumane practices of Israel.

“This deplorable incident, which took place in open seas and constitutes a fragrant breach of international law, may lead to irreparable consequences in our bilateral relations.”

Israeli warships attacked at least one of the six ships carrying pro-Palestinian activists and aid for blockaded Gaza, killing at least two (see update above) and wounding an unknown number of people on board, reports said. The Israeli military denied that its forces attacked the boats, but said they would enforce the decision to keep them away from Gaza. However, other security officials, speaking anonymously, confirmed that activists were wounded, but did not give numbers. They said the troops faced resistance and that soldiers were under orders to use fire only if their lives were in danger.

Omer Faruk Korkmaz, an official of the pro-Islamic aid group IHH, that led the aid shipment, said in Turkey:

“We were not expecting such an operation in international waters. Israel has been caught red-handed and the international community will not forgive it.”

A Turkish website showed video of pandemonium on board one of the ships, with activists in orange lifejackets running around as some tried to help an activist apparently unconscious on the deck. The site also showed video of an Israeli helicopter flying overhead and Israeli warships nearby. Turkey summoned the Israeli ambassador to the foreign ministry to discuss the incident. Turkish television stations said police had blocked dozens of stone-throwing protesters shouting “Damn Israel”, who tried to storm the Israeli Consulate in Istanbul following news of the attack.

[23 miles off the coast of Gaza, 3:30pm] – Today 30 MAY 2010 Israeli Occupation Forces attacked and boarded the Free Gaza Movement boat, the SPIRIT OF HUMANITY, abducting 21 human rights workers from 11 countries, including Noble laureate Mairead Maguire and former U.S. Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney (see below for a complete list of passengers). The passengers and crew are being forcibly dragged toward Israel.

“This is an outrageous violation of international law against us. Our boat was not in Israeli waters, and we were on a human rights mission to the Gaza Strip,” said Cynthia McKinney, a former U.S. Congresswoman and presidential candidate. “President Obama just told Israel to let in humanitarian and reconstruction supplies, and that’s exactly what we tried to do. We’re asking the international community to demand our release so we can resume our journey.”

According to an International Committee of the Red Cross report released yesterday, the Palestinians living in Gaza are “trapped in despair.” Thousands of Gazans whose homes were destroyed earlier during Israel’s December/January massacre are still without shelter despite pledges of almost $4.5 billion in aid, because Israel refuses to allow cement and other building material into the Gaza Strip. The report also notes that hospitals are struggling to meet the needs of their patients due to Israel’s disruption of medical supplies.

“The aid we were carrying is a symbol of hope for the people of Gaza, hope that the sea route would open for them, and they would be able to transport their own materials to begin to reconstruct the schools, hospitals and thousands of homes destroyed during the onslaught of “Cast Lead”. Our mission is a gesture to the people of Gaza that we stand by them and that they are not alone” said fellow passenger Mairead Maguire, winner of a Noble Peace Prize for her work in Northern Ireland.

Just before being kidnapped by Israel, Huwaida Arraf, Free Gaza Movement chairperson and delegation co-coordinator on this voyage, stated that: “No one could possibly believe that our small boat constitutes any sort of threat to Israel. We carry medical and reconstruction supplies, and children’s toys. Our passengers include a Nobel peace prize laureate and a former U.S. congressperson. Our boat was searched and received a security clearance by Cypriot Port Authorities before we departed, and at no time did we ever approach Israeli waters.”

Arraf continued, “Israel’s deliberate and premeditated attack on our unarmed boat is a clear violation of international law and we demand our immediate and unconditional release.”

WHAT YOU CAN DO!

CONTACT the Israeli Ministry of Justice
tel: +972 2646 6666 or +972 2646 6340
fax: +972 2646 6357

CONTACT the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs
tel: +972 2530 3111
fax: +972 2530 3367

CONTACT Mark Regev in the Prime Minister’s office at:
tel: +972 5 0620 3264 or +972 2670 5354
mark.regev@it.pmo.gov.il This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

CONTACT the International Committee of the Red Cross to ask for their assistance in establishing the wellbeing of the kidnapped human rights workers and help in securing their immediate release!

Red Cross Israel
tel: +972 3524 5286
fax: +972 3527 0370
tel_aviv.tel@icrc.org This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

Red Cross Switzerland:
tel: +41 22 730 3443
fax: +41 22 734 8280

Red Cross USA:
tel: +1 212 599 6021
fax: +1 212 599 6009

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/10195838.stm

Greek indymedia reports http://athens.indymedia.org/front.php3?lang=el&article_id=1177477 at least two dead, from other media sources

Guardian corroborate “Two TV networks are reporting that Israeli warships have attacked the six ships carrying pro-Palestinian activists and aid for blockaded Gaza, killing at least two and wounding an unknown number of people on board.”  http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/feedarticle/9104214

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/israel/7789117/At-least-16-dead-as-Israeli-troops-storm-Gaza-aid-flotilla.html

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/10195997.stm

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