Activists on board a six-ship flotilla carrying aid to the Gaza Strip tried to lynch the Israel Navy commandos who boarded their Turkish-flagged boat early Monday, Israel Defense Forces sources told Haaretz on Monday afternoon. At least nine people were killed and several more were wounded in the fighting that erupted aboard one of the ships.
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The IDF confirmed that at least seven Navy commandos had been wounded, two of them seriously, in a fight which apparently broke out after activists tried to seize their weapons.
The commandos, who intercepted the Turkish ferry Mavi Marmara after it ignored orders to turn back from its course to Gaza, said they had encountered violent resistance from activists armed with sticks and knives. According to the commandos, the activists threw one of the soldiers from the upper deck to the lower after they boarded. The organizers of the flotilla said the troops opened fire first.
An Israeli military spokesman said some of the commandos were equipped with paintball guns but the non-lethal weapons were not enough against activists who charged in with batons.
"They had pistols with live ammunition as back-up, to defend themselves," he said. The IDF said it had confiscated two pistols from the boat.
One of the commandos told reporters he descended by rope from a helicopter onto one of the six ships in the convoy and was immediately attacked by a group of people waiting for them.
"They beat us with metal sticks and knives," he said. "There was live fire at some point against us."
A Reuters cameraman on the Israel Navy ship Kidon, sailing close to the convoy, said IDF commanders monitoring the operation were surprised by the strong resistance put up by the pro-Palestinian activists.
One of the commandos said some of the soldiers were stripped of their helmets and equipment and a several were tossed from the top deck to a lower deck, forcing them to jump into the sea to escape.
"They jumped me, hit me with clubs and bottles and stole my rifle," one of the commandos said. "I pulled out my pistol and had no choice but to shoot."
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 IDF field commander ordered the soldiers then to respond with fire, a decision which the commandos said received full backing the military echelon.
The IDF said its rules of engagement allowed troops to open fire in what it called a "life-threatening situation".
"Navy fighters took control of six ships that tried to violate the naval blockade [of the Gaza Strip]," said a statement from the IDF. "During the takeover, the soldiers encountered serious physical violence by the protesters, who attacked them with live fire."
Elite troops from Shayetet 13, a naval commando unit, boarded the protest boats at around 4:00 A.M. Al Jazeera reported Monday morning that the Gaza aid flotilla had changed course to avoid a confrontation with Israeli warships.
Some 700 pro-Palestinian activists were on the boats, including 1976 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mairead Corrigan Maguire of Northern Ireland, European legislators. The boats were carrying 10,000 tons of humanitarian aid and supplies to Gaza.
The Israel Navy had been operating under the assumption that the activists manning the boats would not heed their calls to turn around, and Israeli troops had been prepared to board the ships to steer them away from the Gaza shores toward the Israeli port city of Ashdod.
Huwaida Arraf, one of the flotilla organizers, said the conv9oy began the journey from international waters off the coast of Cyprus on Sunday afternoon, after two days of delays. According to organizers, the flotilla had been expected to reach Gaza, about 400 kilometers away, on Monday afternoon, and two more ships had been expected to follow in a second wave.