(Reuters) - Israel is under pressure to agree to an international inquiry to investigate its lethal seizure of a Turkish aid ship on Monday that was bound for the Gaza Strip, which is blockaded by Israel.
The deaths of nine people in the raid sparked an international outcry but Israel says its marines opened fire in self-defense after being set upon by pro-Palestinian activists wielding clubs and knives. The activists dispute the Israeli allegations.
Below are some questions and answers about the Israeli operation and international fallout.
The cruise ship Mavi Marmara headed a six vessel flotilla taking 10,000 tonnes of aid to the Gaza Strip. The territory has been blockaded by Israel since Hamas, which does not recognize the Jewish state, took over the territory in 2007.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says the blockade is vital for Israeli security, as allowing ships through would enable Islamist Hamas to bring in large quantities of long-range Iranian rockets that could strike deep inside Israel. Muslim Turkey, one of Israel’s closest allies in the Middle East, said the blockade is “inhuman” and that Israel’s interception of the convoy was state terrorism.
The Israeli navy said the flotilla was intercepted 120 km (75 miles) west of Israel. The Turkish captain of one of the vessels said they were 68 miles outside Israeli territorial waters. Under the law of blockade, a nation has the right to intercept a vessel in international waters so long as it is deemed to be bound for a “belligerent” territory, legal experts say.
Most of the violence was confined to the Turkish-flagged Mavi Marmara, but widely diverging accounts about how the violence unfolded have emerged as members of the flotilla returned home, following their release by Israel.
Video footage showed marines being set upon by activists on the vessel who beat them with clubs as they rappelled onto its top deck. One commando is seen firing a paint gun — a non-lethal weapon Israel said members of the force carried — at one attacker. In another, one of the marines fires a pistol, gripping the weapon with two hands.
The footage, provided by the Israeli military, does not show any of the activists being hit by bullets.
The head of a Turkish charity that organized the aid flotilla said some of the activists grabbed guns off 10 soldiers in what he described as self-defense. He said he saw the commandos firing rubber bullets from close range before switching to live ammunition, after some of the activists attacked them with chairs and bats.
Huseyin Tokalak, the Turkish captain of one flotilla ship, said an Israeli warship threatened to sink his vessel before it was boarded. He said Israeli troops fired directly at the Mavi Marmara, where the deaths occurred.
Tokalak saw smoke rising from the ship and the helicopters descending. “The captain of Mavi Marmara said he was wounded and there were others on his ship who were also wounded. He sounded panicked and we got panicked too.”
Farooq Burney, a Canadian on board the Mavi Marmara, said an elderly man was shot and bled to death in the raid. He said activists who snatched pistols from the commandos removed the cartridges and threw them away, contradicting Israeli assertions the weapons were used against the boarding party.
Deflecting a U.N. demand for an international investigation, Israel has embraced a U.S. proposal for an Israeli inquiry with the participation of outside observers.
An Israeli probe would seem likely to focus on the question on many Israelis’ minds: why did military planners of the operation apparently fail to gauge the strength of resistance the marines would encounter on board?
Turkey, long Israel’s only strategic Muslim ally and trade partner, canceled joint military exercises and recalled its ambassador in protest at the raid, and said relations could be normalised only if Israel ended its naval blockage of Gaza. Those calls have been echoed by European leaders and the United Nations whose Human Rights Council voted to set up an independent fact-finding mission into the incident.
U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell, who held talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank town in Ramallah, said the raid must not be allowed to undermine indirect U.S.-mediated Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.