In the evening, one spring in the Mediterranean, the prows of six ships sliced through the sable dark waters on their trek to Gaza. It was May 31, 2010, and waves plash meekly in a calm; there is a hiss of the tide, and, as can be seen from the video later released, stalking behind, at a distance, was the Israeli navy, resolved to block the route of the ships. The Israelis radioed the flotilla to halt, warning them with bullhorns as the gap drew closed. There was no response. The six ships continued. Yet at least once, a voice shot back, indignant with wrath from the Israelis’ quarry, crackling over the radio: the vessels were within international seas. The navy must turn aside. Perhaps that defiant call came from the Mavi Marmara, one of the six ships, where the crews intended to resist arrest. Dozens carried iron bars, knives and batons. They waited in ambush. Some may have had guns. This is highly disputed, yet one picture, published months later in an Israeli newspaper, shows a man holding what looks like a pistol. Israeli commandos, unaware, armed with paint-balls, intending to thwart what they thought were defenseless activists, flew a helicopter close to the Mavi Marmara, rappelling below onto the deck, in the epicenter, of what turned out to be a violent mob. Melee exploded. Soldiers dangle midair from ropes as attackers tried to club them, beneath. Gunshots can be heard in the clips, yet no shooters can be seen. Several Israeli soldiers were injured, nine passengers were killed, and the other five ships capitulated without a struggle.
In the Midst of a War zone
The flotilla was aimed at breaking an economic embargo in Gaza, but like most of what happened on the Mavi Marmara, against whom the sanctions afflict is highly contentious. Gaza was then, and still is, controlled by Hamas, a clique of Islamists that regularly lobs rockets at Israel. Its militants have killed over 450 civilians in the previous decade. They shoot up schools; blow up buses; sometimes they kidnap Israeli men. Of particular dread are the rockets, 950,000 Israelis live within their range. Some can reach Tel-Aviv, Israel’s commercial metropolis. Primitive, easy to build with imported goods, gangs blasted over 5,000 of them into Israel before the naval blockade was imposed. Hamas rockets killed 25 people. They injured hundreds, and sent untold numbers scurrying into their bomb shelters. For security reasons, Israel has proscribed the group as terrorists, and considers its blockade against Hamas, not the residents of Gaza, and the Israeli frigate, shadowing the flotilla, saw itself as acting in self-defense. Two of the Mavi Marmara’s passengers were Hamas agents, according to Israeli military sources, while a third was a smuggler for Islamic Jihad. One passenger, Khan Aukeef, was plotting to enter Gaza to train guerrillas for Hamas, and the group that sponsored the convoy, the IHH, a Turkish charity, was banned in Israel, two years before, for its ties to Hamas. Another tagalong aboard was Raed Salah, a cleric from Israel who had previously been imprisoned for financing Hamas. Less than a year before the flotilla, he was arrested again for assaulting a police officer, only to give a speech later, at an event organizers banned Jews from attending, where he declared Jews indeed eat the blood of children.
“We are not those who ate bread dipped in children’s blood,” Salah told the Arab only audience. (He was repeating the blood libel, as the accusation is known, an anti-Semitic myth from medieval Europe). “Our blood is on their clothes, on their doorsteps, in their food and in their drinks. Our blood has passed from one ‘general terrorist’ to another ‘general terrorist.”
Ed Peck, a former US ambassador who participated in the flotilla, conceded in an interview days after that June, it was “entirely possible” terrorists were aboard. Nevertheless, it is not clear if Israel really knew militants lurked within the vessels before it stormed them.