What Actually Happened on Gaza Activist Ships? The Truth is Out There, Somewhere

Margaret Smith

By Margaret Smith Israeli navy commandos attacked a flotilla of ships carrying aid and hundreds of pro-Palestinian activists to the blockaded Gaza Strip in a predawn raid early Monday morning, killing at least nine passengers and causing a diplomatic crisis, as protests around the world condemn the actions. It's now 48 hours later, though, and one question is still on everybody's mind: what actually happened? That's what news reports and political officials continue to debate. With no clear footage or recordings from the incident, first-hand accounts are the only source of information officials can rely on, and eyewitness reports from both Israelis and activists continue to offer differing events. Israeli officials say that the commandos were attacked when they attempted to board the ships and only used open fire when they feel their lives were threatened. Activists and crew members aboard the ships headed for the Gaza Strip, however, say that the Israeli's attacked first, and one crew member described that the Israelis "acted like pirates." In the meantime, criticism against Israel has continued to mount. Turkey, Israel's closest ally in the Muslim world, says it's getting impatient as it waits for a response from Israel, and Turkish Prime Minister Recap Tayyip Erdogan warned Israel earlier today, calling for the country to be "punished" for the attack. The UN has also called for an independent inquiry into the raid, and all the while the Free Gaza Movement has sent more aid ships to the blockaded area despite warning that they will be shipped by the Israeli military. Eyewitness accounts continue to be published, but the truth of the morning's actions remain shrouded in debate. Here's a primer on what has been claimed by both sides thus far. The differences are stark. Activist accounts Activists and crew members aboard the flotilla of ships continue to say that the Israeli's attacked first. Survivors of the assault from both Greece and Turkey returned to their home country's Tuesday, and they began to tell their tales. The ship hit hardest was the Mavi Marmara, which was carrying 600 out of the 700 activists aboard. Kutlu Tiryaki was the captain of another ship, and as reported by The Guardian he says that they continually said that they weren't carrying weapons and just came to bring humanitarian aid: The attack on the Mavi Marmara came on in an instant: they attacked it with 12 or 13 attack boats and also with commandos from helicopters. We head the gunshots over our portable radio handset, which we used to communicate with the Mavi Marmara, because our ship communication was disrupted. There were three or four helicopters also used in the attack. We were told by Mavi Marmara their crew and civilians were being shot at and windows and doors were being broken by Israelis. Six Greek activists who recently returned to Athens also accused Israeli commandos of using electric shocks during the raid. Dimitris Gielalis, who was aboard one of the ships, told reporters: "Suddenly from everywhere we saw inflatables coming at us, and within seconds fully equipped commandos came up on the boat. They came up and used plastic bullets, we had beatings, we had electric shocks, any method we can think of, they used." And Sheera Frenkel, reporting from Ashdod for NPR, says that dozens of people were evacuated to hospitals with injuries. "Video footage that we've seen from the boats shows a number of [Israeli] navy commandos rappelling from Black Hawk helicopters onto the boats," Frenkel said. "The soldiers are heard calling out to the flotilla to stop or prepare to be boarded, and afterward, you see armed soldiers on board the shops. The footage becomes very, very chaotic at that point. You see activists wearing orange life vests that are running across the deck carrying what appear to be wounded people." The Israeli response Israel reports, however, say that the activists attacked first, and that Israelis only retaliated when they felt their lives were threatened. Early Tuesday a video was released by the Israel Defense Force of an unnamed navy commando with a broken arm giving his account of what happened that morning. "… every guy that descended was met by 3 or 4 people," he says. "And they just started beating him up, tearing him to pieces. It was a lynch. Every guy that came down the ropes was taken aside, and everyone there had metal rods, knives, slingshots, glass bottles. At one point there was live fire, they started firing live rounds, two guys there had live ammunition." Live footage from the event was also released by the Israel Defense Force. It's available here.

Margaret Smith, a summer 2010 In These Times editorial intern, is a journalism student at Columbia College in Chicago.
Get 10 issues for $19.95

Subscribe to the print magazine.