From The Times (UK), June 1, 2010, by James Hider, Ashdod:
Before the [Hate] Flotilla steamed out of Cyprus laden with thousands of tons of aid for the blockaded Gaza Strip, some of the passengers on a Turkish-flagged cruise ship spoke to news crews filming their departure.
“We are now waiting for one of two good things — either to reach Gaza or achieve martyrdom,” said one woman in a headscarf. After a night of bloodshed on the high seas on Monday, at least nine of her fellow passengers, most of them believed to be Turks, had achieved the latter.
...Israel had denounced the Gaza flotilla as a publicity stunt to “humiliate” the Jewish state by publicly breaching its three-year siege of the Gaza Strip, where the Islamist movement Hamas holds sway. Determined to halt the six ships full of international activists ...three Israeli missile boats slipped out of the northern port of Haifa at about 9pm to intercept the fleet in international waters.
...Over a loudspeaker, an Israeli naval officer warned the ships in English that they were in breach of the Israeli blockade of Gaza — deemed a “hostile entity” by the Knesset following the Hamas takeover. He ordered them to surrender their aid to the Israeli Navy, which would take it to the port of Ashdod and transfer it on lorries across the Israeli-controlled crossing with Gaza.
...At about 4am, Israeli Navy Seals from the elite Flotilla 13 unit were sent in three helicopters and in Zodiac assault craft to board the vessels. They had trained hard for the mission, but were expecting minor resistance. The plan was to land on the top deck of the Turkish ferry, rush the bridge and take control.
The Gaza fleet’s co-ordinators had said their colleagues on the five other ships had been schooled in non-violent resistance ...However, some of the hundreds of passengers on the Mavi Marmara had other ideas. As the Israeli Navy Seals rappelled, one by one, on to the upper deck of the ship, it was no longer clear exactly who was ambushing whom.
“They beat us with metal sticks and knives,” said one of the Israeli commandos, who hit the deck only to find a mob of furious demonstrators, rather than political protesters, armed with iron bars, baseball bats, knives, petrol bombs and stun grenades. An Israeli military night-vision video released after the chaotic storming showed the first soldier being overwhelmed as he landed, then pitched on to a lower deck by the crowd.
Still the Israeli soldiers kept coming, in a single vertical line, to be set upon. Video footage from the activists showed stunned soldiers being pummelled, one of them reeling for cover from the blows in a hatchway.
Meanwhile, other commandos were trying to scale the ship’s sides, but were having their hands beaten by activists determined to repel the boarders. According to the army, it was a “lynching,” with the passengers trying to break the soldiers’ arms and legs and beating them about the head.
Overwhelmed, some of the elite forces started losing their sidearms to the crowd. Others had their helmets and body armour pulled off them as they were hurled from deck to deck. Some of the Israeli soldiers had to dive into the sea to save themselves.
“They jumped me, hit me with clubs and bottles and stole my rifle,” one commando said. “I pulled out my pistol and had no choice but to shoot.”
An Israeli journalist on the missile boats said that the soldiers had been carrying anti-riot paintball guns to disperse the crowd, as well as pistols. These appeared to have little effect and the order was eventually given to resort to live rounds.
“There was live fire at some point against us,” a commando said. That was when the gunfire erupted at terrifyingly close quarters. When it was over, two hours into the operation, at least nine passengers were dead, dozens more were wounded and Israel stood in the glare of international condemnation as rioters tried to storm its consulate in Istanbul and its ambassadors across Europe were summoned to explain themselves.
Israel said that seven of its soldiers had been wounded, two of them seriously, in the pre-dawn mêlée. Critics said that they had used the wrong forces, pitching crack commandos who are used to storming weapons-smuggling ships into what was, essentially, a sea-borne riot.
Accused by European leaders of using disproportionate force — a charge reminiscent of the Gaza conflict and the subsequent UN inquiry — Israel rushed to defend its actions, saying that IHH, the Turkish Islamic charity that chartered the ferry, had links to Hamas and even al-Qaeda.
“There was extreme violence from the moment that our forces reached the ship. It was premeditated and included weapons, iron bars, knives and at a certain stage firearms, perhaps in some cases weapons that were snatched from soldiers,” said Lieutenant-General Gabi Ashkenazi, the Israeli Chief of Staff. But there was no explanation for the intelligence failure that led him to send his men armed primarily with paintball guns to face such a belligerent mob.
Last night the subdued flotilla was being towed into the sealed-off port of Ashdod, to await processing by the police. Those who agreed to deportation were to be escorted to the borders, while those who did not – including the Challenger 1’s two British passengers – were being taken to jail.
In hospital beds across Israel, wounded passengers spent the night under heavy guard by military police officers, still far from Gaza.