The preferred media headline so far this morning has been “Israelis kill 10 peace activists in Gaza flotilla,” but that’s not quite what happened. The IDF attempted to head off a number of boats attempting to run the blockade on Gaza, a blockade necessitated by Hamas’ repeated attacks on Israel. They boarded the lead ship by helicopter, expecting to either convince the occupants to turn back or to commandeer the boat themselves. What they didn’t expect was to find armed “peace activists,” and a bloody melee ensued:
The left-wing activists on board a flotilla carrying aid to the Gaza Strip tried to lynch the Israel Navy commandos who stormed their Turkish-flagged ship early Monday, Israel Defense Forces sources told Haaretz.
The commandos, who intercepted the Turkish ferry Mavi Marmara after it ignored orders to turn back, said they encountered violent resistance from activists armed with sticks and knives. According to the soldiers, the activists threw one of their comrades from the upper deck to the lower after they boarded.
Activists attacked a commando with iron bars as he descended onto the ship from a helicopter, the army said. The IDF said its rules of engagement allowed troops to open fire in what it called a “life-threatening situation”.
The soldiers said they were forced to open fire after the activists struck one of their comrades in the head and trampled on him. A senior field commander ordered the soldiers then to respond with fire, a decision which the commandos said received full backing the military echelon.
At least 10 people were killed and several more wounded after the Israel Navy troops opened fire on the six-ship flotilla. Unofficial reports put the death toll at between 14 and 20.
Ynet has a more detailed timeline of the confrontation:
A few minutes before the takeover attempt aboard the Marmara got underway, the operation commander was told that 20 people were waiting on the deck where a helicopter was to deploy the first team of the elite Flotilla 13 unit. The original plan was to disembark on the top deck, and from there rush to the vessel’s bridge and order the Marmara’s captain to stop.
Officials estimated that passengers will show slight resistance, and possibly minor violence; for that reason, the operation’s commander decided to bring the helicopter directly above the top deck. The first rope that soldiers used in order to descend down to the ship was wrested away by activists, most of them Turks, and tied to an antenna with the hopes of bringing the chopper down. However, Flotilla 13 fighters decided to carry on.
Navy commandoes slid down to the vessel one by one, yet then the unexpected occurred: The passengers that awaited them on the deck pulled out bats, clubs, and slingshots with glass marbles, assaulting each soldier as he disembarked. The fighters were nabbed one by one and were beaten up badly, yet they attempted to fight back.
However, to their misfortune, they were only equipped with paintball rifles used to disperse minor protests, such as the ones held in Bilin. The paintballs obviously made no impression on the activists, who kept on beating the troops up and even attempted to wrest away their weapons.
One soldier who came to the aid of a comrade was captured by the rioters and sustained severe blows. The commandoes were equipped with handguns but were told they should only use them in the face of life-threatening situations. When they came down from the chopper, they kept on shouting to each other “don’t shoot, don’t shoot,” even though they sustained numerous blows.
The Navy commandoes were prepared to mostly encounter political activists seeking to hold a protest, rather than trained street fighters. The soldiers were told they were to verbally convince activists who offer resistance to give up, and only then use paintballs. They were permitted to use their handguns only under extreme circumstances.
The planned rush towards the vessel’s bridge became impossible, even when a second chopper was brought in with another crew of soldiers. “Throw stun grenades,” shouted Flotilla 13’s commander who monitored the operation. The Navy chief was not too far, on board a speedboat belonging to Flotilla 13, along with forces who attempted to climb into the back of the ship.
The forces hurled stun grenades, yet the rioters on the top deck, whose number swelled up to 30 by that time, kept on beating up about 30 commandoes who kept gliding their way one by one from the helicopter. At one point, the attackers nabbed one commando, wrested away his handgun, and threw him down from the top deck to the lower deck, 30 feet below. The soldier sustained a serious head wound and lost his consciousness.
Only after this injury did Flotilla 13 troops ask for permission to use live fire. The commander approved it: You can go ahead and fire. The soldiers pulled out their handguns and started shooting at the rioters’ legs, a move that ultimately neutralized them. Meanwhile, the rioters started to fire back at the commandoes.
Ynet notes that the IDF should learn two lessons from this. First, paintball rifles won’t work against so-called peace activists when they’re armed and inclined to fight. That’s probably even more true in an in-close confrontation, such as on a boat. Paintballs sting, as anyone who has played war games with them attest, but once antagonists understand that’s all they do, they won’t provide any deterrent value at all.
The second lesson Ynet takes is that the soldiers should have considered the fact that their arrival was hardly a surprise and planned accordingly, but really, the IDF and the Israelis were foolish to assume that these activists had non-violent intentions in the first place. The demonstration was in support of Hamas, hardly a group dedicated to non-violence and peaceful coexistence. That assumption put their soldiers’ lives at risk unnecessarily and allowed planners to eschew a more muscular entry to the boat — which could have saved lives on both sides of the equation with an initial use of overwhelming force.
The world will blame Israel for this, but the blockade exists to keep weapons out of the hands of Hamas, which continually attacks Israel despite the latter’s withdrawal from Gaza years ago. It’s a legitimate and necessary military response to Hamas’ terrorism, and the flotilla knowingly sailed itself into a military conflict — and carried arms into it as well. That makes them legitimate antagonists in the conflict and fair game for Israeli’s military.
Update: Say, it’s probably a good thing the IDF had its video cameras rolling:
Prominent among the coalition organizations participating in the aid flotilla scheduled to arrive in the Gaza Strip in the coming days is the Turkish IHH (Insani Yardim Vakfi, IHH, “humanitarian relief fund”). It is a radical Islamic organization which was established in 1992 and formally registered in Istanbul in 1995. It is headed by Bülent Yildirim. …
In practice, besides its legitimate humanitarian activities, IHH supports radical Islamic terrorist networks. Inrecent years it has prominently supported Hamas (through the Union of Good). In addition, the ITIC has reliable information that in the past IHH provided logistical support and funding to global jihad networks.
IHH’s orientation is radical-Islamic and anti-American, and it is close to the Muslim Brotherhood(Hamas’ parent movement). IHH supports Hamas and does not hide the connection between them. Hamas also considers its links to IHH and Turkey to be extremely important, and regards Turkey as a target audience for its propaganda network (Palestine-Information, Hamas’ main website, has a Turkish version, and as of the end of 2009, the website of its military wing, the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, has also appeared in Turkish).
In recent years, especially since Hamas took over the Gaza Strip, IHH has supported Hamas’ propaganda campaigns by organizing public support conferences in Turkey. At those conferences, which featured the participation of senior IHH figures, the heads of IHH expressed their support for Hamas and its strategy (including the armed struggle it favors), in defiance of the Palestinian Authority, Hamas’ rival.
IHH is a member of the Union of Good, an umbrella organization of more than 50 Islamic funds and foundations around the globe, which channels money into Hamas institutions in the Palestinian Authority-administered territories. As a Union of Good member IHH has connections with other worldwide Islamic funds and foundations which support Hamas. Among other things, the support includes initiating and conducting joint projects whose objectives are to bolster the de facto Hamas administration in the Gaza Strip and Hamas’ civilian infrastructure in Judea and Samaria, which also supports terrorism (the infrastructure is under pressure from the Palestinian Authority security services). IHH, which has become an important factor in global fund-raising for Hamas, transfers significant amounts of money to Hamas institutions in Judea and Samaria, including the Islamic Charitable Society in Hebron and the Al-Tadhamun Charitable Society in Nablus (Hamas’ two central “charitable societies,” both outlawed by Israel).
IHH operates widely throughout the Gaza Strip. To promote its activities it opened a branch there, headed by Muhammad Kaya, who recently stated that IHH intended to send other aid flotillas to the Gaza Strip (See below). In January 2008 an IHH delegation met with Ahmed Bahar, a senior Hamas activist who is acting chairman of Hamas’ council in the Gaza Strip. At the meeting the delegation revealed the extent of the aid it had given Hamas in the Gaza Strip during the preceding year and said it intended to double the sum in the future. In January 2009 IHH head Bülent Yildirim met with Khaled Mashaal, chairman of Hamas’ political bureau in Damascus, and Mashaal thanked him for the support of his organization.
Israel expelled IHH from Gaza in 2008, along with 35 other organizations associated with the Union of Good.
Update III: And here we have a “peace activist” repeatedly stabbing an IDF soldier, via Orit Sklar on Twitter:
Yup, a really good thing the IDF brought along its video cameras …
Update V: A few commenters point out that this took place in international waters, not in Gaza’s waters, and therefore consider Israel’s actions illegitimate. However, the flotilla had already announced their intention to run the blockade, making them belligerent and giving the Israelis a reason to interdict them. And are we to believe that the “peace activists” would have surrendered peacefully had this action taken them within the 12-mile limit? I see no reason to believe that; indeed, it looks as though they were prepared for armed confrontation.
Update VI: Noel Sheppard at Newsbusters takes a look at the news coverage of the incident.