ISTANBUL, Turkey — Turkish anger with Israel reached a new high on Thursday during the funeral of “Freedom Flotilla” activists killed by Israeli commandos while trying to break the blockade on Gaza.
Turkish leaders built on their earlier condemnations, asserting that Israel’s attack on a Turkish ship had not only caused irreparable damage to the allies’ relationship but had exposed the Jewish state “once again” as a perpetrator of crimes against humanity.
Mourners added their weight to that uncompromising line and shared eyewitness accounts that contradict Israel’s version of what Turkish premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan earlier this week called a “bloody massacre.” The pre-dawn raid killed nine Turks, including one US-born teenager of Turkish descent.
“We didn’t expect any such attack,” said Yavuz Cakir, who works with the company that handles the Mavi Marmara – the largest vessel of the six-ship flotilla taken over by the Israeli military to prevent passage to Gaza.
“The Turkish government was also surprised. The world was also surprised,” added Mr. Cakir, who attended the funeral. “The Jewish people and Jewish government shoot easily, and do not respect anyone.”
That sentiment was echoed by Turkish President Abdullah Gul, who said past warm relations with Israel “will never be the same again,” and that “Israel has made one of the biggest mistakes of its history.”
“Turkey will never forgive this kind of attack in international waters,” Mr. Gul said on Thursday. “The entire world has risen up, and everyone knows how Israel has been exposed, once again, how they have committed a crime against humanity.”
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan also spoke Thursday, saying that Turkey “will not bow to this bullying,” and that “Israel risks losing its most important friend in the region if it doesn’t change its mentality.”
U.S. citizen among those mourned
At the funeral, several thousand Turks bowed in prayer before eight coffins draped with Turkish and Palestinian flags. Family members and fellow activists shed tears, and chanted “God is great!” as they lifted the coffins above the crowd waving flags that included the yellow banner and green assault rifle of Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
“Our friends have been massacred,” Bulent Yildirim, the head of Islamic charity IHH, told the mourners. “We became martyrs.”
The IHH added important heft to the “Freedom Flotilla,” the ninth such attempt by activists to break Israel’s Gaza blockade by sea. The IHH had purchased the Turkish-flagged Mavi Marmara, which was carrying the bulk of the flotilla’s 10,000 tons of aid when it was attacked by Israeli commandos on Monday morning.
Among the dead was Furkan Dogan, a 19-year-old US-Turkish citizen from the conservative industrial city of Keyseri. He had been shot in the forehead, according to his father, who identified his son. One friend who was with Dogan on the boat said he was shot five times, in the head and chest.
“I feel my son has been blessed with heaven,” state-run Anatolian News Agency quoted the father as saying, according to the Associated Press. “I am hoping to be a father worthy of my son.”
Eyewitness accounts of the Israeli raid
Some 466 activists arrived in Istanbul in the early hours of Thursday, among them more than 50 foreigners. Some were at the funeral, and their eyewitness accounts differed sharply from the official Israeli version of events.
Sakir Yildirim, a dual UK-Turkish citizen, said he and fellow activists expected some trouble, but during the trip “were all happy and laughing because we thought we would make it to Gaza” – and that Israel would fire plastic bullets, not live rounds.
When the first two Israeli naval ships came close to the Mavi Marmara during pre-dawn prayers on Monday, “I thought: they are not going to do anything horrible; they are human beings,” said Mr. Yildirim. “Everyone agreed: We would just try to push them back to where they came from.”
Instead, the Israeli commandos stormed the ship, firing from the decks and also from at least the helicopter above. Yildirim says he saw one activist shot in the forehead when the red point of a laser rifle sight found its target a few yards from him. When the same light crossed his face, he said he quickly “hid” out of sight.
“They started firing, and I heard bullets going all over the place,” said Yildirim. The captain of the ship finally issued orders not to resist; the Israeli soldiers brought Yildirim and others to their knees, with guns to their heads.
Yildirim runs a kebab shop in the English city of Bristol. Part of the ship’s cargo was $7,500 worth of cement for Gaza, and $3,000 in cash explicitly earmarked for orphans in Gaza–all of it donated by people in Bristol.
That cash – and $3,750 of his own money, he says – was never returned.
“We couldn’t deliver the goods,” says Yildirim. “But I think it has really been successful. At least now the world is watching Gaza.”
Activist says they threw Israeli guns in the sea
Yildirim and other activists said that most among them were pacifists. Ali Yunusoalu, a friend of Dogan who was on the ship during the attack and filmed it – though his camera and film were confiscated – said he saw one older man shot in the leg. When activists took the rifles of the first three Israeli soldiers to touch down on the deck, the activists “threw them [the guns] into the sea,” recalled Mr. Yunusoalu.
Images of the raid released by Israel – some of it the confiscated video from the activists themselves – showed homemade slingshots and bags of marbles, as well as wooden clubs, wrenches, and an array of more than two dozen knives (many of them kitchen knives) they say were found on board the Mavi Marmara. Infrared footage shown by the Israeli military of the commandos fast-roping onto the deck from a helicopter showed them being beaten by iron bars and sticks, and one soldier apparently being dropped to a lower deck.
Israeli military spokeswoman Lt. Col. Avital Leibovitch told Al Jazeera English that the Israeli raiders were acting in self-defense: “Any metal bar pointed at someone’s head could kill, and if we’re talking about hundreds of metal bars, as well as dozens of knives, these are not tools used to cut salad.”
She said that two pistols taken by the activists from the commandos were used against the second set of landing Israeli soldiers. Activists say Israeli gunshot wounds were caused by “friendly fire” – the same thing that accounted for a number of Israeli military casualties during the 2008-09 war in Gaza.
“Once the soldiers saw knives, metal rods, chains, and broken bottles and they were shot at, they shot back and killed nine of them,” said Israel military spokesman Arye Shalicar, according to Reuters.
Swedish author decries Israeli ‘nonsense’
The Israeli claims that activists had made more than cursory preparations for resistance do not appear to be supported by the images so far officially released by Israel.
Activists said they had no weapons, but also had no choice but to resist a military raid in international waters that, they say, amounted to piracy. The Israelis fired first and activists, some of them wearing gas masks, say they fought back with what came to hand, including makeshift clubs and plastic chairs.
“However much the Israelis are screaming that they have found weapons, it is just nonsense,” said Swedish crime novelist Henning Mankell, who was on a Swedish-Greek ship called Sofia – not the Mavi Marmara, where the fatal assault took place.
“On the ship where I was, they found one weapon and that was my safety razor, and they actually came forward and showed that,” Mr. Mankell told Swedish radio, according to the Associated Press.