ASHDOD, ISRAEL // Both right-wing and left-wing Israeli activists, as well as dozens of international journalists, descended on the southern Israeli port city of Ashdod yesterday in anticipation of the arrival of the six humanitarian boats seized by the Israeli navy in the Mediterranean Sea.
Black helicopter gunships sped across the skies above Ashdod's stretch of sandy beach into the afternoon, as armed Israeli patrol boats weaved in between cargo and fishing vessels off the coast and the low rumble of F16 fighter jets could be heard overhead. Israel's military barred journalists from both accessing the port and speaking to the activist passengers upon arrival, setting up roadblocks in and around the harbour.
"We came here to show our solidarity with the flotilla and with the people who are sailing peacefully in international waters in an attempt to break the siege on Gaza," said Inna Michaeli, an Israeli co-ordinator with the Coalition of Women for Peace, which brought in several hundred activists by bus from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv to protest against the raid. They carried signs, chanted and played music in an area south of the port. "We are shocked, but we are not surprised."
Left-wing protesters held signs scrawled with slogans like "Justice for Gaza", and "Israeli Terror Knows No Boundaries", after scuffling with pro-army demonstrators who had also set up shop in this otherwise sleepy seaside town. "Well done, IDF [Israeli Defence Forces]. These people [the activists] were helping terrorists," said Haim Cohen, a 52-year-old Israeli business consultant waving an Israeli flag. "If they want to help Gazans, they should ask permission from the Israeli government. The army should have bombed them in Cyprus."
Some local Israelis, perched on a grassy hill to the north of the port, came to watch the spectacle, some equipped with binoculars and camera phones and others selling hot dogs and cold drinks. Two Israeli military commanders sipped lemonade while fielding phone calls from a leafy restaurant terrace below the hill. "I respect Muslims, but there are laws," said Ariel Cohen, a former soldier in an Israeli combat unit. "I've been to Gaza as a soldier, and it's easy for people to criticise the army when it takes lives. I wasn't there, but every soldier knows if something threatens you, you shoot to stop it."
Israeli military spokesmen say the army faced violent resistance from activists - who they said wielded sticks and other "sharp objects" on the vessel - and fired in response to the attacks. Initial reports said the majority of the activists killed were Turkish, but this could not be confirmed. The army said seven of its soldiers were injured. Another Israeli, a retired humanities professor who said he was at the Ashdod port to observe, said he wished the media would not focus on Israeli extremists in the aftermath of the attack.
"What you see here, these right-wing protesters, it gives a bad impression of Israelis and of what most Israelis think," Noam Gali said. "Israel should have stopped the boats, but not so foolishly. Israel made a mistake." The first of the humanitarian cargo ships captured and towed by the Israeli navy to the Ashdod port arrived at about 2pm, while the main passenger vessel, which carried more than 600 people and suffered the most casualties, the Turkish-flagged Mavi Marmara, docked in Ashdod as the sun set on the Mediterranean at 6.45pm, according to an Israeli military spokeswoman.
Last night, the Israeli military was willing to confirm that nine activists were killed on-board by live Israeli fire; flotilla organisers had initially put the death toll as high as 20. The Gaza Strip has been held under a tight Israeli blockade for three years, after Hamas, a bitter enemy of Israel, seized power there in 2007. Israel has strictly limited the amount of goods and fuel that enter the tiny territory in an attempt to weaken the Islamists, arbitrarily banning items like chocolate and coriander as "luxury goods".
Greta Berlin, a spokeswoman for the Free Gaza Movement that helped organise the flotilla, which left from Greek, Turkish and Italian ports, had said the aid and supplies aboard the ship - including cement for houses destroyed in last year's war, water-purification systems and wheelchairs - are all items Israel admittedly does not allow into Gaza. As part of the blockade, Israel has also sealed off Gaza's 45km-long coastline, prohibiting Gaza's fishermen from trawling beyond 5.5kms.