Israel Fears Diplomatic Backlash in Wake of Gaza Flotilla Deaths

IDF operation to stop the international Gaza aid flotilla ended in the death of nine foreign activists after naval commandos clashed with protesters.

The Israel Defense Forces operation to stop the international flotilla heading toward the Gaza Strip ended in the death of nine foreign activists when naval commandos clashed with protesters on one of the ships early yesterday morning.

Moti Milrod

Ten Israeli soldiers were wounded, one seriously.

As a result of the affair, Turkey recalled its ambassador from Tel Aviv. Israel is concerned the crisis could lead the countries to sever diplomatic ties.

The IDF began an internal inquiry into the operation yesterday, even though it was reluctant to call the raid a failure.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and Navy Commander Eliezer Marom all said the commandos found themselves facing an extremely violent crowd that tried to lynch them, and fully supported the commanders' decision to open fire.

A key point of the inquiry will be the planning and preparation of the Shayetet naval commando unit. Early testimonies suggest the IDF believed the protesters didn't have the interest, ability or intent to engage in serious violence. The operation plan was approved by the political and military leadership.

Defense sources voiced concern about the political and security repercussions of the incident.

"This is becoming a religious conflict," one senior defense official told Haaretz.

Israel had informed the six-ship flotilla that it could not enter Gaza, and invited the ships to dock in Israel. The ships refused, and continued heading toward the blockaded coastal strip.

The commandos then moved to intercept the ships, taking control of five out of the six vessels without incident.

However, when they tried to board the Turkish-flagged Marmara, they encountered a violent mob. The commandos slid down a rope suspended from a helicopter onto the upper deck, where they were attacked with clubs and rods. One soldier was thrown from the upper deck to the lower deck, and sustained serious injuries. Two others were shot, apparently from pistols that the protesters wrestled from the commandos.

Of the six ships, the Marmara had the most passengers, accounting for 600 of the 700 or so protesters participating in the flotilla.

All six ships had been towed into Ashdod port by yesterday evening, and the protesters were being held at a tent camp near Ashdod. Israel is planning to deport them. Some were detained for refusing to identify themselves. Injured protesters are being treated at Israeli hospitals.

The flotilla's organizers announced yesterday that another ship, the Irish-registered Rachel Corrie, will depart for Gaza today. The IDF is preparing to keep it from reaching Gaza.

Defense minister Ehud Barak spoke by phone with American officials yesterday, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and National Security Advisor James Jones. Barak said that although Israel regrets the loss of life, its soldiers were defending themselves, and the responsibility rests entirely with the flotilla organizers and the violent protesters.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was being hosted by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, was briefed on the operation last night. Netanyahu conferred with his advisors through the evening, and held frequent phone calls with ministers Barak, Dan Meridor and Avigdor Lieberman, as well as the chiefs of the Shin Bet and the Mossad.

Netanyahu eventually decided to cut short his visit overseas and cancel his meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington, which was scheduled for tonight. Netanyahu called Obama personally and explained why he felt compelled to return to Israel.

Obama told Netanyahu Israel must quickly investigate the incident, and expressed his regret over the loss of life. The two leaders said they would set a new date for the meeting soon, and that their advisers would discuss any new developments regarding the flotilla.

"The soldiers had to defend themselves," Netanyahu said. "We regret any violence, and we are ready to transfer all humanitarian equipment to the Gaza Strip after an inspection, but we must prevent the entry of raw material for Hamas in Gaza."