ATHENS, Greece — International outrage over the deaths of at least nine people in a raid by Israeli commandos on ships trying to deliver humanitarian aid to Gaza sparked demonstrations in Israel, Europe and across the Arab world on Monday.
Here in Athens, thousands marched from the Israeli Embassy to the American Embassy and the Greek parliament, fighting with police along the way. Istanbul’s central Taksim Square was occupied by large crowds for hours while helicopters hovered overhead. In Tel Aviv, crowds demanded the resignation of Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who ordered the raid.
Turkey pulled its ambassador from Tel Aviv and Greece cancelled a joint air force exercise with Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel canceled his plans for meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama, who voiced "deep regret" over the raids.
Israeli frigates, speedboats and helicopters were used in the predawn raid, during which Israeli commandos boarded a flotilla of civilian ships carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza. Videos released by the Israeli military showed soldiers rappelling onto the deck of one vessel and being met by organized defenders wielding chairs, metal poles and clubs. One soldier was beaten and tossed down onto a lower deck. Another video, shot from a helicopter, showed the Turkish ship’s crew lobbing a stun grenade and a firebomb at the Israelis. Neither of the videos go on to show what happened as the Israelis opened fire with live ammunition.
The Cyprus-based Free Gaza movement, which coordinated the flotilla, claims that the military operation took place in international waters and was an act of piracy. Israel has not denied the claim that its assault happened outside its territorial waters.
“The armada of hate and violence in support of the Hamas terror organization was a premeditated and outrageous provocation,” said Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon at a press conference. “The organizers are well known for their ties to global jihad, Al Qaeda and Hamas. On board the ship we found weapons that were prepared in advance and used against our forces.”
Israel has not released images of the weapons it claims to have found.
“The organizers' intent was violent, their method was violent, and unfortunately the results were violent,” added Ayalon.
The Israeli Army maintained an information blackout into Monday evening as calls increased for news about the fates of hundreds of missing activists aboard the ships and a handful of international journalists. One of those injured managed to communicate with a Spanish journalist as he was being transferred to a hospital in the Israeli port of Haifa. Greek newspaper Ta Nea carried vivid descriptions of panicked phone conversations as Israeli commandos boarded the two Greek ships, before satellite receivers and mobile phones went dead.
Greek Deputy Foreign Minister Dimitris Droutsas summoned Israel’s ambassador to lodge an official protest, and Greece’s minister of defense announced he was canceling an air exercise with Israel.
In Athens, watching live coverage of the diplomatic drama unfolding on the TV of an open-air parking lot, accountant Platon Karavakis complained that “we are cowards because we will not do anything against [the Israelis] unless they first kill our own people.”
Of 35 Greek participants in the flotillas, one was reported wounded.
“We are shocked by reports of killings and injuries of people on board boats carrying supplies for Gaza, apparently in international waters,” was the terse joint statement delivered by Robert Serry, the Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process and Filippo Grandi, the General Commissioner for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. “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.”
Turkey demanded that the U.N. Security Council and NATO convene emergency sessions. It is a member of both organizations and has increasingly punched above its diplomatic weight in recent years. Turkey's prime minister Recip Tayyip Erdogan theatrically stalked out of a World Economic Forum panel discussion involving Israeli President Shimon Peres in 2009 and was in Tehran last week to arrange a deal that would allow Iran and the U.S. to open negotiations on Tehran’s controversial nuclear energy program.
A previous attempt last year to reach Gaza from Cyprus with one ship failed when an Israeli Navy boat rammed the vessel in open seas. This year, Cyprus refused to allow the flotilla to set sail from its ports.
“We have 35 Greeks prisoners in international waters and we don’t even know in what situation they’re in,” said Giannis Spiridis, a student in Athens. “Neither the prime minister has addressed this issue nor anyone else in the government. And then they lecture us about Somali pirates!”
Turkey canceled three military exercises with Tel Aviv and Erdogan cut short a visit to Latin America and is headed home. In Istanbul, Palestinian flags flew from rooftops throughout the city.
“The silence of the Greek government shows how pathetic and cowardly it is,” said Petros Konstantinou, a press coordinator for the flotilla of boats. “Greece is sitting quietly, like a little child in its corner because, contrary to Turkey, it has decided to ally itself with Israel.”
Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify that Erdogan walked out of a World Economic Forum panel with Peres.