Up to twenty human rights activists are believed to have been killed and scores injured after Israeli commandos attacked a humanitarian aid flotilla of ships this morning in international waters.
One Irish activist is understood to have been injured in the assault, which focused on the lead ship of the convoy, a Turkish-registered ferry, the Mavi Marmara. The Free Gaza Movement’s Challenger 1 was also boarded by Israeli forces 130km off the coast of Gaza, en route from Cyprus.
Three Irish campaigners were on board the Challenger 1 vessel which had travelled from Cyprus. It is believed one of them -- Fiachra O Luain, who ran as an independent candidate in the European elections -- was been injured. His condition is not known.
The five Irish people on board the cargo ship, the Rachel Corrie, which departed from Dundalk earlier this month, are all reported to be safe, including 1976 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mairead Corrigan Maguire.
Most of the dead are understood to have been Turkish nationals, shot dead at point blank range amid chaotic scenes on the Mavi Marmara.
Israel has imposed strict censorship on the attack while launching an extraordinary global propoganda campaign to quell international condemnation. It put the number of fatalities at nine, but that number is expected to rise.
Live-streaming video showed images of elite Israeli troops descending from helicopters at around 4am this morning and proceeded to use live ammunition against the ship’s passengers. The grainy video also showed casualties on the boat.
Video released by the Israeli military showed activists used deckchairs and other items to challenge the commandoes who were firing live rounds.
The attack happened as the flotilla neared an Israeli-declared ‘military exclusion zone’ in the international waters around Gaza, as the captain of the Turkish ship refused an Israeli order to turn back.
The distressed organisers of the flotilla said the convoy had been ‘hijacked’ and had been being ordered at gunpoint to Israeli ports.
Upon arrival, the Israeli military have stated that all Israeli participants will be arrested, Palestinians will be questioned by Israeli secret police and internationals will be deported or held in a detention centre if they contest deportation.
On board the ship are hundreds of civilians -- including parliamentarians -- attempting to bring 10,000 tonnes of supplies and humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip which has been under an illegal Israeli-imposed siege for the past three years.
All the Palestinian factions were united in their condemnation, and the Palestinian Authority called it an act of piracy and declared a three-day state of mourning.
Irish activists aboard the 1,200-ton cargo ship Rachel Corrie, named after an American who was crushed to death by an Israeli army bulldozer in Gaza in 2003, had set sail from Dundalk earlier this month to join the convoy.
Mustafa Baraghout, an independent member of the Palestinian Legislative Council called the attack “a declaration of war on many countries, including Turkey, Sweden and Ireland”.
In a statement this morning, Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheal Martin said he was “gravely concerned” over the incident. He said the department was seeking to confirm the safety of the eight Irish nationals who sailed with the Turkish led flotilla. “The reports of up to 15 people killed and 50 injured, if confirmed, would constitute a totally unacceptable response by the Israeli military to what was a humanitarian mission attempting to deliver much needed supplies to the people of Gaza.”
Greta Berlin, a spokeswoman for the Free Gaza Movement that organised the convoy, said: “How could the Israeli military attack civilians like this? Do they think that because they can attack Palestinians indiscriminately they can attack anyone?”
Dr. David Landy, Chair of the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign, said: “This act of Israeli piracy is a clear breach of international law. The fact that Israel would allow its forces to kill and wound international human rights activists shows the world once again that Israeli is a rogue state that acts with impunity.
“It is high-time for this impunity to be ended and for Israeli to be brought to account for its disregard for international law.”
Dr. Landy continued: “Israel has claimed that it no longer occupies Gaza. If this is the case, then why did they prevent this humanitarian aid flotilla from reaching Gaza? The hypocrisy of the Israeli state is simply astounding, and it is time for the international community to take serious action against Israel. We demand justice both for those murdered today and the Palestinian people for whom such acts are, unfortunately, commonplace.”
26-County Taoiseach Brian Cowen has called for an international inquiry into the Israeli attack. He said he believed Israel’s blockade of humanitarian assistance to Gaza was illegal under international law.
“Whilst the Irsaeli government has withdrawn from Gaza, they remain a de facto occupying force since they decide what gets into Gaza and who gets out of it,” he said.
“I believe that the cause of this problem relates directly to the fact that there is a humanitarian blockade. I believe that is in violation of international law. People are entitled to have humanitarian assistance.”
The Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign called a protest for this evening at 6pm, assembling at the Spire on O’Connell Street, Dublin 1 which will then march to the Israeli Embassy in Ballsbridge.
Speakers at the event will be Sinn Fein’s Aengus O Snodaigh and Fianna Fail’s Chris Andrews, both of whom said they were refused access to the flotilla by the Cypriot authorities.
Mr O Snodaigh condemned the attack and called on Mr Martin to expel the Israeli ambassador. “It looks as though this cold and calculated attack took place in international waters, in breach of all international maritime laws. There must be action from the international community,” the Sinn Fein TD said.
“At all stage of preparations to join the flotilla the organisers reiterated non-violent and peaceful resistance to any boarding by Israeli army. The Israelis had nothing to fear from this flotilla.”
Mr Andrews said he was “deeply shocked but sadly not surprised” by today’s events. “Israel has proven repeatedly that it believes itself to be above international law, evidenced by the fact that it carried out these attacks in International waters,” he said. “I have just spent a week with several of the people who were on board these boats and I can say with absolute certainty these people were only concerned with peacefully bringing badly needed aid to the region.”
Irish Congress of Trade Unions president Jack O’Connor and general secretary David Begg issued a joint statement condemning the assault.
“The people on those boats were civilians engaged in peaceful humanitarian work, bringing much needed aid to the Gaza Strip and were no threat to anyone,” they said. “To launch a military assault on a humanitarian convoy is beyond the bounds of all that is acceptable and should be judged as such by the international community. The assault was akin to the actions of a rogue state.”
Amnesty International also called for an inquiry. Noeleen Hartigan, programmes director for Amnesty International Ireland, said: “Israeli forces clearly appear to have used excessive force. Israel says its soldiers acted in self-defence, alleging that protesters attacked them, but it seems incredible that the level of lethal force used by Israeli troops could have possibly been justified.
Ms Hartigan called for a “credible and independent” investigation into the killings and said Amnesty had asked Minister Micheal Martin to make this clear to the Israeli ambassador when he meets him this afternoon.”
“The blockade does not target armed groups. It punishes Gaza’s entire population by restricting the entry of food, medical supplies, educational equipment and building materials,” she said.
Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams described the Israeli attack as “murderous”.
“The response of the international community must be firm and resolute.
“Israeli policy towards the Palestinian people must change.
“This Israeli action must be condemned by all governments and political leaders who believe in democracy, peace, security and the standing of international law.
“My thoughts are with the families of those who died in this outrageous attack.”
There were widespread calls by left-wing and progressive Irish organisations for people to join protests against the latest Israeli killings.
“All right-thinking countries should withdraw their diplomatic representatives immediately in protest at this war crime,” the General Secretary of Republican Sinn Fein, Josephine Hayden said.
“We urge to the people of Ireland to show their disgust at this unwarranted attack on innocent civilian volunteers by attending protests and boycotting Israeli goods.