CAIRO: Israeli army forces raided and attacked a fleet of ships carrying aid to Gaza early Monday killing at least 19 people. The Freedom Flotilla, as it was known, was carrying some 10,000 tons of aid intended for the blockaded Strip.
The attack happened in international waters 65 km off the coast of Gaza. The six ships carrying 700 activists — including four Egyptians, two of them Muslim Brotherhood MPs (Mohamed El-Beltagy and Hazem Farouk) — have been seized by Israeli forces and are reportedly being led to the Israeli port of Ashdod. All communication with those onboard was cut off when Israel seized the ships.
The Free Gaza Movement, one of the organizers behind the aid flotilla, said on its website, “Under darkness of night, Israeli commandoes dropped from a helicopter onto the Turkish passenger ship, Mavi Marmara, and began to shoot the moment their feet hit the deck. They fired directly into the crowd of civilians asleep … The attack has happened in international waters, 75 miles off the coast of Israel, in direct violation of international law.”
IDF spokeswoman Avital Leibovich did not deny that the attack occurred in international waters, saying, “This happened in waters outside of Israeli territory, but we have the right to defend ourselves.”
The attack has drawn widespread condemnation from many countries and protests have already taken place in several Arab countries with more scheduled for tomorrow. Hundreds of people gathered outside the Israeli embassy in Turkey in protest over the incident. Three of the ships and about half of the activists were Turkish.
It is believed that most of the casualties have been Turkish, and Turkey’s Foreign Ministry said, “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.”
Many countries, including Egypt, have summoned their Israeli ambassadors over the incident, as well as Sweden, Greece, Norway, Spain, Denmark and Turkey. Turkey also recalled its ambassador from Israel.
A statement from the presidency on behalf of Hosni Mubarak stated that he “condemned Israel’s excessive and unjustified use of force and the resulting loss of innocent life.” Mubarak also stressed “Egypt’s solidarity — its people and government — with the families of Gaza.”
The Egyptian Foreign Ministry released a statement Monday condemning the attack and calling on Israel to lift the siege of Gaza. Egypt has been criticized for participating in the siege of the Strip by keeping the Rafah border crossing closed.
Sending his condolences to the families of the victims, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossam Zaki said in the statement, “Egypt has always warned about the danger and illegitimacy of the continuation of the Israeli blockade on Gaza.” Zaki concluded by calling on Israel to lift the blockade on Gaza.
Muslim Brotherhood MP Hussein Ibrahim, a colleague of El-Beltagy and Farouk criticized the Egyptian government for what he termed its complicity in the siege of Gaza as well as the Arab response so far.
“What happened is state terrorism, not just piracy,” he told Daily News Egypt, “It’s a shame on Egypt for having ties [with Israel]. Condemnation means nothing anymore; it is a time for action. We as Egyptians can do so much, such as cutting all political and economic ties.”
Gaza has been under a total blockade for almost three years now, after Hamas wrestled control of the Strip from rival faction Fatah.
Fatah leader and President of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas called the incident a “massacre” and declared three days of mourning while Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri called on Arabs and Muslims to rise up and demonstrate in front of Israeli embassies the world over.
Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa called for an emergency meeting to discuss the attack, which the league described as a “terrorist act.” Moussa told AFP, “We condemn this crime, taken against a humanitarian mission and people. They were trying to help people. They were not on a military mission. Everyone should condemn this.”
Two Australians, a reporter and a photographer for the Sydney Morning Herald have not been heard from since the Israeli raid on the ships. They had reported that the Israeli navy was approaching the flotilla and had jammed communications before the attack.
A spokesman for EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton demanded a full Israeli enquiry into the incident and extended sympathy to the families of the victims.
Robert Serry, UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process and Filippo Grandi, Commissioner-General of the UN Relief and Works Agency issued a joint statement in which they said, “We wish to make clear that such tragedies are entirely avoidable if Israel heeds the repeated calls of the international community to end its counterproductive and unacceptable blockade of Gaza.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu is currently in Canada and was scheduled to meet with US President Barack Obama on Tuesday. This meeting was canceled due to events on the flotilla.
An Israeli paramedic in the northern port of Haifa evacuates a person wounded in violent clashes when Israeli navy stormed a convoy of ships carrying hundreds of passengers and aid destined for the Gaza Strip on May 31, 2010. (AFP PHOTO/ANCHO GOSH)