Israel's effort to regulate information on ship raids backfires

Israel's version of the events is now increasingly being questioned as eyewitness accounts trickle out from activists who were deported in the past few days.

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TEL AVIV // While Israel's intensive media campaign following its attack on the Gaza-bound aid ships drew support at home, it appeared to be a major failure abroad. Israel's bid to control information after the raid by keeping away from the media hundreds of activists it had detained, as well as distributing videos depicting its soldiers as victims, backfired amid growing international condemnation of Israel's approach to the Palestinians and to human rights groups, analysts said.

Michael Warschaski, a founder of the Jerusalem-based Alternative Information Centre, an Israeli-Palestinian advocacy group, said: "No one abroad is buying the Israeli version. A civilian boat was attacked in international waters by a powerful army that killed almost 10 people. It's clear who the bad guys are and who the good guys are." Israel's version of the events is now increasingly being questioned as eyewitness accounts trickle out from the more than 600 activists who were deported in the past few days.

Indeed, the country has insisted that its commandos acted in self defence when they stormed the Turkish vessel, where most of the violence took place. According to Israel, they were attacked with clubs and knives and two pistols that were snatched from them. But those who were on board the Mavi Marmara say they only used sticks to defend themselves and that the Israeli marines attacked them with stun grenades, rubber bullets and live rounds.

While the emerging holes in Israel's version may force the country to agree to some kind of international investigation into the raid, the political price may be even heftier. Turkey, Israel's most important Muslim ally, has now become openly hostile. Turkey has branded the raid a "massacre", has withdrawn its Tel Aviv ambassador and cancelled joint military exercises after the raid, in which eight Turkish nationals and a man with duel US-Turkish citizenship were killed.

The international outcry also prompted Nicaragua to break diplomatic relations with Israel. Israel's majority Jewish population, however, rallied around its government's narrative in a manner reminiscent of its reaction to the country's devastating three-week assault in Gaza that ended in January last year and its war with Hizbollah in the summer of 2006. Neve Gordon, an Israeli political scientist, said: "There was a coalescing around the flag and the narrative worked because there were very few critical voices heard in the media."

Israeli officials have not shied away from fanning a nationalist mood. Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, on Wednesday called on Israelis to unite in a televised address as he warned that an easing of restrictions on Gaza's waters would result in an "Iranian seaport" in the territory that has been under an Israeli blockade since June 2007 and declared "security above all." Israeli spokespeople were apparently instructed to repeat the word "lynch" in referral to the country's claims that the Mavi Marmara's passengers attempted to kill the commandos.

The defence ministry posted photos of weapons that it said were seized from the peace activists' flotilla on its Flickr photo-sharing page. Israel also uploaded videos to Youtube with edited, black-and-white footage of carefully selected scenes from the raid, including one supposedly showing a soldier beaten by passengers after boarding and another depicting a commando thrown off the deck. The country has also been accused by journalist groups of editing and distributing video confiscated from some foreign reporters aboard the ships to justify opening fire during the raid.

It may have helped Israel's case as well to seize mobile phones, cameras and laptops of all the activists after detaining them, cutting many of them off from the world for at least two days. Israelis have been receptive. The country's mainstream media enthusiastically repeated the government line about the commandos being attacked and mainly questioned why the government and military waited at least 10 hours after the raid to kick off a public relations campaign rather than whether the raid was justified.

Thousands of Israelis sent out messages on Twitter and Facebook with links to the government-sponsored videos and added a barrage of pro-Israel reader comments to news stories by foreign media. On Facebook, a call in Hebrew circulated to execute Hanin Zoabi, the Israeli-Palestinian legislator who was on the Turkish vessel. Last week, Miri Regev, a right-wing MP and the former spokeswoman of the Israeli army, yelled at Ms Zoabi in Arabic to "go to Gaza, you traitor", during a tense parliamentary session in which another far-right female legislator tried to forcibly prevent Ms Zoabi from speaking at the podium.

Furthermore, pro-Israel rallies have been organised throughout the country, including one in which all participants were asked to wear white in a show of support for the country's white-uniformed naval soldiers, which included the commandos carrying out the raid.