Nine dead in Vicious conflict aboard ‘Mavi Marmara’

Dozens wounded, including 10 soldiers, in pre-dawn battle at sea; Israel says its commandos were brutally attacked before opening fire.

Weapons from Mavi Marmara 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Weapons from Mavi Marmara 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The Israeli Navy’s takeover of a flotilla of international aid ships headed to the Gaza Strip came to a dramatic end before dawn Monday, with nine activists dead and dozens wounded. Defense officials said that despite the outcome, Israel would continue to enforce the blockade on Gaza and use force if necessary to prevent activists’ ships from reaching the Strip.
IDF naval commandos slid down ropes onto the Mavi Marmara Turkish passenger ship from helicopters. They immediately encountered fierce resistance as they were attacked by activists armed with bats, knives and metal pipes. The boarding of the five other ships was completed without incident.
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Aboard the Mavi Marmara, the commandos first responded to the violence with crowd dispersion measures, and after almost an hour of scuffles, during which a number of soldiers were wounded – some of them stabbed or shot – the commandos were given permission to use live fire. At one point, activists succeeded in stealing a handgun from one of the soldiers, leading to an escalation in violence.
The navy made initial contact with the flotilla at 11 p.m. on Sunday night and ordered the ships to follow them to Ashdod Port or be boarded. The boarding started at 2 a.m. on Monday and was completed by 8.
The IDF released a grainy black-and-white video that supported its version of events and showed activists swarming around commandos after they descended from a helicopter by rope. Activists scuffled with the commandos and were seen throwing an object the military identified as a firebomb.
IDF sources said that despite the unfortunate outcome, the navy will continue to use the same type of operations to stop vessels that try to break the blockade. Another ship, named Rachel Corrie – for the American International Solidarity Movement activist who was killed in Gaza in 2003 – was still making its way to Gaza and the IDF said that it would intercept the ship and prevent it from reaching the Strip.
“If more ships come, we will use the same tactic in the future,” a top IDF source told The Jerusalem Post, adding that it was possible that Israel had succeeded in creating a deterrent for future ships trying to reach Gaza.
OC Israel Navy V.-Adm. Eliezer Marom said the IDF soldiers who raided the  Mavi Marmara acted with “perseverance and bravery.”
The soldiers’ lives were in danger and they fired their weapons inself-defense, Marom said. Many more people could have been killed ifthe soldiers had not acted with the proper sensitivity, he added.
DefenseMinister Ehud Barak said in a press conference that while he regrettedthe loss of lives, the organizers of the Gaza-bound protest flotillawere solely responsible for the outcome.
The soldiers tried todisperse the activists aboard the ship peacefully but were forced toopen fire to protect themselves, Barak said.
He called theflotilla a provocation and called the Turkish organization IHH, whichorganized the initiative, “extremist supporters of terror.”
Thedefense minister called on Arab and Palestinian leaders not to let this“provocation by irresponsible people” ruin the progress made inproximity peace talks.
IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. GabiAshkenazi said Monday that the violence aboard the MaviMarmara was instigated by those aboard the ships and thatsoldiers who opened fire were defending themselves.
Ashkenazinoted that the Mavi Marmara, the only ship on whichviolence took place, was different than the other five ships of theflotilla. He said that five ships carried humanitarians and peaceactivists, but the Mavi Marmara was sponsored by theextremist organization the IHH and those aboard acted with “extremeviolence.”
Helicopters evacuated the wounded to Israelihospitals, officials said. Five ships had reached port by early eveningand 136 activists had been removed without serious incident, themilitary said.
Sixteen were jailed for refusing to identify themselves, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said.
Accordingto police procedures, activists who agreed to be deported wereimmediately taken to Ben-Gurion Airport and flown home at Israel’sexpense. Those who did not agree were transferred to a prison facilityfor questioning.
By press time, 150 people from five ships wereexamined, only 40 of whom came from the MaviMarmara. Forty people agreed to be deported immediately,mostly Greeks and Turks.
Turkey’s NTV network showed activistsbeating one commando with sticks as he landed on one of the boats. Ofthe 10 soldiers wounded in the raid, Dr. Arnon Afek, deputy director ofSheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer, said two commandos were broughtin with gunshot wounds. Another had serious head wounds from anunspecified blow, Afek added.
Yaakov Lappin and AP contributed to this report.