What Really Happened in the Flotilla Attack?
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Jamal Elshayyal, a journalist with al-Jazeera, woke with a start to the opening salvos of an Israeli assault that would transform the decks of the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish vessel bound for Gaza, into a bloodbath.
From the ship's position deep in international waters, satellite images of Israeli speedboats and helicopters approaching the vessel were beamed across the globe before communications were abruptly cut off, leaving the events on the Marmara to unfold away from the eyes of the world.
Six days after the bloody assault that left nine foreign protesters, mainly Turks, dead, nobody can recount with any conviction precisely what happened that night. The convoy of ships, whose passengers included writers, politicians and journalists, had been expected for weeks, with organizers loudly broadcasting their plans to run Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip and draw international attention to the situation there.
From the beginning, it was clear that Israeli forces were concentrating in their largest numbers on the Marmara, a ship carrying some 550 peace activists. The remaining five boats were much smaller and easily commandeered. After the Marmara was subdued, the passengers silenced, and their recording equipment confiscated, Israel disseminated a carefully choreographed account of the events that night that would dominate the airwaves for the first 48 hours.
Only as eyewitnesses, traumatized by their experiences, started to return to their home countries, were serious questions raised about the veracity of the Israeli version of events. Israeli commandos initiated the attack on the Marmara with stun grenades, paintballs and rubber-cased steel bullets. They were met with water hoses as the ship's passengers tried to form a defensive cordon to prevent soldiers from reaching the wheelhouse. Next, the helicopters started their approach, hovering overhead as they tried to disgorge commandos.
From the other ships, passengers looked on helplessly: "The worst thing was seeing the helicopter come up because I knew they were going to invade," said Ewa Jasiewicz, a 32-year-old organizer. "You could hear the screams when they started shooting ... We wanted to stop and go back but there wouldn't have been anything we could have done."
From the moment the helicopters arrived, the sequence of events becomes confused. The dizzying number of claims and counter-claims serves only to present an incomplete account of a military operation that went badly, badly wrong. More than 1.7 million viewers have pored over the edited YouTube footage posted by the Israeli navy since Wednesday. In the dramatic clip, commandos rappel down on to the deck from a helicopter, where they are met by angry activists armed with iron bars and sticks.
This is a critical point, for Israel has rallied domestic opinion on the crucial claim that its soldiers dropped into a meticulously planned riot for which they were completely unprepared. Panicked, they acted in self-defense after they landed, shooting only those who threatened them.
The video is problematic, though. The images of angry protesters are striking, but they lack context. What happened before? What happened next? Had the soldiers started shooting when they descended to the deck? The only account offered by the Israelis of what happened next is left to Staff Sergeant S, a commando who claims he shot six of the protesters.
The last of 15 to arrive on the deck, he said he saw that two of his colleagues had gunshot wounds. Pushing others into a protective cordon around the injured soldiers, he shot at the protesters to force them to fall back. It's a neat account, but several eyewitness accounts tell a very different story.