Hundreds of pro-Palestinian activists seized by Israeli commandos in a bloody raid on their flotilla returned home to a hero’s welcome yesterday, with Turkish crowds cheering their attempt to break Israel’s naval blockade of the Gaza Strip.
A funeral was to be held in Istanbul later yesterday for the nine activists killed during the Israeli raid on six aid ships — eight Turks and an American of Turkish origin.
Thousands packed Istanbul’s main Taksim Square in the early morning hours before moving to Istanbul airport to welcome home the activists expelled from Israel. They waved Turkish, Palestinian and Hezbollah flags while chanting “God is Great!”
One large banner read “Murderous Israelis: Take your hands off our ships” while others in the crowd held signs with slogans like “From now on, nothing will be the same” and “Intifada is everywhere — at land and at sea” — in reference to the Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation.
All of the nine activists died from gunshot wounds — some from close range — according to initial forensic examinations done in Turkey after the bodies were returned, NTV television reported, citing unidentified medical sources.
Israel maintains that the commandos only used their pistols as a last resort after they were attacked, and released a video showing soldiers in riot gear descending from a helicopter into a crowd of men with sticks and clubs. Three or four activists overpowered each soldier as he landed, beating each one to the deck, where they were surrounded by more men with sticks.
Returning activists admitted fighting with the Israelis but insisted their actions were in self defense, because the ships were boarded in international waters by a military force.
“We first thought they were trying to scare us,” said Bulent Yildirim, the head of the Islamic charity group IHH that organized the flotilla, following his deportation from Israel yesterday. “When we started morning prayers, they began attacking from everywhere, from the boats, from the helicopters. Our friends only performed civil resistance.”
Yildirim said the activists fought the Israeli commandos with chairs and sticks and that they seized weapons from some Israeli soldiers, but threw them into the sea.
Israel says two of the seven soldiers wounded were shot with guns that were wrested from them, while a third was stabbed.
“Even if we had used the guns, that would be still a legitimate self defense,” Yildirim said.
The incident has increased tensions in the region, including with Turkey, Israel’s closest ally in the Muslim world. On Thursday, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called Israel’s actions “an historic mistake.”
“Israel risks losing its most important friend in the region if it doesn’t change its mentality,” he said.
The activists say their flotilla aimed to bring 10,000 tonnes of aid to Palestinians in Gaza, which has been under a three-year blockade by Israel and Eygpt.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hotly rejected calls to lift the blockade on Hamas-ruled Gaza, insisting the ban prevents missile attacks on Israel.
Netanyahu said the aim of the flotilla was to break the blockade, not to bring aid to Gaza. If the blockade ended, he warned, hundreds of ships would bring in thousands of missiles from Iran, to be aimed at Israel and beyond.