, ASHDOD, May 31 – Israeli naval forces stormed a Gaza-bound aid flotilla in international waters before dawn on Monday, killing up to 19 pro-Palestinian activists, most of them reportedly Turkish nationals.
The bloody ending to the high-profile mission to deliver supplies to the besieged Gaza Strip plunged Israel into a diplomatic crisis on the eve of talks between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
As Israel pointed the finger of blame at passengers for initiating the violence, accusing them of using deadly force, activists from the ships countered with their own descriptions of how events unfolded in raid which took place in international waters at around 5:00 am (0200 GMT).
Live footage taken from the Turkish passenger boat, which was posted all over the Internet, showed black-clad Israeli commandos rappelling down from helicopters and clashing with activists, as well as several wounded people lying on the deck of the ship.
"Under darkness of night, Israeli commandos dropped from a helicopter onto the Turkish passenger ship, Mavi Marmara, and began to shoot the moment their feet hit the deck," according to a report on the website of the Free Gaza Movement.
The shaky footage shows scenes of chaos, with the dark profiles of Israel missile boats looming in the background.
The Israeli army insisted its troops opened fire only after they were attacked with knives, clubs and even live fire.
"As a result of this life-threatening and violent activity, naval forces employed riot dispersal means, including live fire," an army statement said, adding that it appeared as if the passengers "were planning to lynch the forces."
Israel had a blunt response to the bloodshed, pinning the blame squarely on the activists.
"They initiated the violence," Netanyahu\’s spokesman Mark Regev told AFP. "We made every possible effort to avoid this incident.
"Unfortunately they were attacked with deadly force by the people on the boats — with iron bars, knives and live fire."
Israel\’s Channel 10 TV said 19 passengers were killed and 36 wounded in the raid.
The army confirmed more than 10 people had died in the operation and said between 15 and 30 passengers were wounded.
Five naval commandos were also wounded, two of whom were said to be severely injured, while another three were in moderate condition.
A Turkish charity involved with the flotilla claimed at least 15 people were killed, most of them Turkish nationals.
As details of the bloody confrontation emerged, an Israeli military boat could be seen escorting a large white boat and a smaller yacht-type craft into the southern Israeli port of Ashdod, an AFP correspondent said.
Black-clad naval officers could be seen on the deck of the larger boat which appeared to be a passenger vessel, he said.
Media reports also said that senior Arab Israeli Islamist leader Raed Salah had been injured in the clashes
Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas slammed the navy raid as "a massacre" and announced a three-day mourning period.
"We will have to take some difficult decisions this evening," an official from his office told Palestinian television, without giving further details.
The Palestinian Authority also called for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council "to discuss the piracy, the crime and the Israeli massacre," said top negotiator Saeb Erakat.
Israel\’s Arab community called a general strike in response to an Israeli naval operation and called for protests across the country.
In response, hundreds from across the political spectrum flooded onto the streets of the northern Arab Israeli city of Nazareth to protest against the bloody attack.
The Islamist Hamas movement which controls the Gaza Strip reacted angrily to the raid
"We call on the Palestinian Authority to halt negotiations, direct or indirect, with Israel because of this crime," said Ismail Haniya, the Islamist movement\’s prime minister in Gaza.
The ships, carrying more than 700 passengers, were on the last leg of an aid mission to deliver some 10,000 tonnes of supplies to Gaza, which has been under a crippling Israeli blockade since 2007.
Israel had warned the attempt to break the Gaza blockade was illegal and that it would intercept the ships, tow them to the Ashdod port and detain the activists before deporting them.
It labelled the convoy a media stunt, insisting the humanitarian situation is stable in Gaza despite reports to the contrary from aid agencies.