Twenty-seven EU countries have gone into urgent session through their ambassadors in Brussels on Monday, to debate the dramatic events off the shore of Gaza, where the Israeli Army attacked a convoy of ships carrying 10,000 tons of humanitarian aid to the Strip, which has been besieged by the Israelis since the summer of 2007. At 4 am on Monday, the IDF attacked the Freedom Flotilla, 64 km into international waters, killing no less 19 civilians and wounding over 50. Fifteen of those killed onboard the Freedom Flotilla were Turkish citizens while a seasoned Palestinian leader, Raed Salah, was wounded in the attack and so head of the Lebanese delegation. Australian journalist Paul McGeough and photographer Kate Geraghty are both missing onboard the ship, and so is the best selling Swedish novelist Henning Mankell and Mairead Corrigan-Maguire, the Northern Irish Nobel peace laureate, along with four Scottish passengers and 28 British nationals. The names of those killed in the horrendous attack have not yet been disclosed at the time of writing, 24-hours after the Israeli operation.
Meanwhile, France, Egypt, Spain, Sweden, Athens, Denmark—and of course Turkey—have summoned Israeli ambassadors in their capitals, seeking an explanation for what happened. The UN Security Council went into urgent session in New York, preparing a draft resolution condemning the Israeli operation, calling for the immediate release of the besieged ships, and for an international inquiry. For his part, Ban Ki Moon said that he was “shocked” at what had happened, calling for a “full investigation.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was wrapping up a visit to Canada at the time of the attack, headed back to his country as international criticism mounted on Tel Aviv for what happened off the shores of Gaza. Netanyahu abruptly canceled a Tuesday meeting scheduled earlier with US President Barack Obama, defending his country’s action, claiming that his troops were “provoked” into opening fire when attacked by men with knives, onboard the Flotilla. The official US statement—as that of the entire international community—seemed to doubt Netanyahu’s argument. In an official statement, Washington said: “The President expressed deep regret at the loss of life in today’s incident, and concern for the wounded. The President also expressed the importance of learning all the facts and circumstances around this morning’s tragic events as soon as possible.” The Syrians, who have been warning of accumulated tension in the Middle East, strongly condemned the Flotilla attack, with President Bashar al-Assad saying that US support for Israel “regardless of what crimes it commits has led shattering stability in the region.” He called on the US to “pressure Israel to cease its vicious attacks and lift the siege on Gaza.” His words were echoed by Iran, Hamas, and Hizbullah in Lebanon, which called what happened, “a terrorist attack that deserves punishment.” Netanyahu said that his soldiers had been forced to open fire on the civilians onboard the Flotilla, after they had been “clubbed, beaten, and stabbed.” He added that his soldiers “had to defend themselves, defend their lives of they would have been killed.” Most observers of the crisis, both Arab and European, write off the Israeli argument as sheer nonsense. Arafat Shoukri, of the Free Gaza Movement (FGM), said that he had spoken to the activists onboard the ship when the Israeli helicopters had arrived. He elaborated, “Then we started to hear screams, shouting, shooting everywhere. We heard some of them shouting ‘We are raising the white flag, stop shooting at us!’” All talk about the activists being armed, he added, “was cheap propaganda.”
The angriest response no doubt, came from Turkey’s Erdogan, who cut short a trip to Latin America and returned to Ankara, accusing Israel of “inhumane state terrorism” and “violation of international law.” The Turkish Ambassador to Israel Oguz Celikkol has been recalled to Ankara while the Turkish Prime Minister angrily defended those onboard the ships, saying that Netanyahu’s claim that they had been carrying arms were “lies.” Meanwhile, thousands of demonstrators took to the streets in major Turkish cities and throughout Damascus, Beirut and Baghdad. For its part, Greece withdrew its joint military exercises with Israel, protesting against the Gaza raid while French President Nicolas Sarkozy said that he condemned “the disproportionate use of force” while thousands of demonstrators tried to storm the Israeli Embassy in Paris. Britain’s Foreign Secretary William Hague said that there was a “clear need for Israel to act with restraint and in line with international obligations.”
The Elders Group—a combination of 12 past and present world leaders—launched by ex-South African President Nelson Mandela back in 2007, strongly condemned the Flotilla attack, describing it as “completely inexcusable.” In a statement on Monday, the group said: “This tragic incident should draw the world’s attention to the terrible suffering of Gaza’s 1.5 million people, half of whom are children under the age of 18.” The Elders Group includes six Nobel Peace Prize winners, among who are former UN Secretary General Kofi Anan, former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, former US President Jimmy Carter, and President Mandela. They collectively stated that Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip “was not only one of the world’s greatest human rights violations” but also “illegal” and “counterproductive.” World respected ex-Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad came out with a strong statement in favor of the Flotilla victims, saying: “I feel very angry that the Israelis have used force against people totally unarmed. I am sure the Israelis will say that these people are carrying weapons. That is ridiculous!”
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