Some examples of conflicting reports:
The Free Gaza website (organizers of the flotilla):
Under darkness of night, Israeli commandoes [sic] dropped from a helicopter onto the Turkish passenger ship, Mavi Marmara, and began to shoot the moment their feet hit the deck. They fired directly into the crowd of civilians asleep.Andre Abu Khalil, camerman for Al-Jazeera and passenger on the Marmara, gave a very different description of the context of the boarding:
"Twenty Turkish men formed a human shield to prevent the Israeli soldiers from scaling the ship. They had slingshots, water pipes and sticks."Nathan Schneider ... wrote on Sojourners' God's Politics blog that the intentions of the protesters were peaceful:
"They were banging the pipes on the side of the ship to warn the Israelis not to get closer."
According to Reuters, Andrew Abu Khalil also said that an initial landing by a small group of commandos armed with anti-riot weapons was overpowered by activists wielding sticks. "There were four Israeli soldiers brought to the lowest deck. They had fracture wounds." Then, according to Abu Khalil, a second wave of soldiers stormed the ship, shots were fired, and nine Turkish activists were killed.
Barry Rubin has reported on the intentions of Bülent Yildirim, IHH leader and organizer of the flotilla. Yildirim has stated that he was on his way to Gaza, ready to die as a martyr. His ideals did not include nonviolence, nor could he be called a 'peace activist'."It appears as if some people aboard took matters into their own hands and attacked the Israeli soldiers. But many of those leading the mission were seasoned activists committed to and trained in nonviolence. Their primary cargo was humanitarian aid, and their purpose was to make a political point, not engage Israeli forces in combat. If fighting broke out when armed Israeli forces arrived that is to be regretted, but that should not be mistaken for the Gaza Freedom Movement's intentions."
It is very difficult to tell exactly what happened on board the Marmara. Here is my best guess.
No doubt many of those involved in the flotilla were, as Nathan Schneider said, genuine nonviolent activists. Their strategy was to attempt to breach the blockade, and thereby to force the Israelis to interrupt their mission and seize their boats. The idea was to force Israel to use its soldiers to interrupt the flotilla. This would bring condemnation of Israel, and increase international pressure for the end of the blockade.
There was the stated goal of delivering humanitarian aid to Gaza. However the whole point of running the blockade was to create publicity. They knew Israel would need to use force of some kind – you can't shop a flotilla with a fishing boat – and the cameras were running.
However the coalition of groups linked into the Free Gaza movement included Islamic radicals, who, like Bülent Yildirim, had a heart for jihad, and talked (and chanted) about war against the Jews, holy martyrdom (shahid) and the victory of Islam. Thus, it came about that among the volunteers on board were some not-so-peaceful Turks, members of IHH. (See also a report on Palestinian Television about the flotilla leader's commitment to jihad and desire for martyrdom.)
It seems these Turks had been trained in more than non-violence, and they had a different plan in mind. When the IDF commandos arrived, the would-be jihadi martyrs were ready and willing to take the fight to them with metal or wooden rods torn from the fabric of the ship, slingshots, and knives. The Turks had the benefit of surprise, and managed to beat the first Israeli soldiers unconscious with these weapons. They then dragged their wounded captives down below deck.
At this point the equation changed radically. Although the ships had apparently been searched for weapons before leaving for Gaza, the captured Israeli soldiers had hand guns in their holsters. Their capture meant that the Turks now had both guns and hostages. The Israelis knew this. They also had to assume that their fellow commandos' lives were in danger. The Israelis could no longer assume that the Marmara was full of people 'trained in nonviolence', as Schneider put it. If some passengers were willing to beat armed soldiers unconscious with metal rods, and now had guns, what level of violence would be considered 'proportionate'? The Israeli commandos went in with guns firing.
What is unclear is whether some of those who died were killed unlawfully. Anyone who beats an Israeli commando unconscious can hardly expect the rest of his unit to knock politely on the door asking for the return of his body. In the melee and the desperate heat of conflict, people can easily get killed for little more than refusing to stand down with a knife or a stick in their hand, especially when commandos are racing against the clock to rescue a comrade. Under such circumstances the boundary between murder and reasonable use of force can be a very fine line indeed. About this issue the eye-witness reports are conflicted — as they are in many other respects.
These events are indeed tragic. I am grieved for the families of those killed and wounded. The deceased are now being celebrated in Turkey as heroes and martyrs for Allah. What a tragic, pointless waste of life!
No doubt the IDF will be working on improving their ship boarding techniques. But a group which should be made to shoulder a good deal of responsibility for these futile deaths is the international coalition of 'peace activists' who naively linked up with Islamic radicals, and insisted on believing that they were 'peace activists'. Why did they do this?
The problem is denial and an unforgivable lack of discernment. As long as muddled-headed activists deny and conceal the ideology of jihad, which Hamas is so publicly and obviously wedded to, they will find nothing wrong with opening Gaza's borders to rockets and other weapons, and they will keep getting into boats with Khaybar-chanting religious radicals who have no interest in peace, unless it involves a victory for the 'Army of Muhammad'.
The international 'peace activists' can shout as much as they like that it is hateful bigotry to criticize the ideology of Islamic jihad. In reality, not facing up to the implications of radical Islamic ideology, and not exposing jihadist ideology to the light of day, is the reason why nine people died on board the Marmara last week. If the international activists had exercised more discernment, those Turks would still be alive today, Israeli soldiers would not be in hospital recovering from broken bones and cracked skulls, and tempers would not be running as hot as they are in the Middle East.
POSTSCRIPT. For an analysis of the jihad credentials of some participants in the flotilla, see The Jihadist "Istanbul Declaration" and the Gaza Flotilla by Jonathan Fighel.