Turkey holds funerals for Gaza flotilla activists
Turks express anger and frustration. Survivors say they tried to turn back Israeli commandos with sticks and bars, but not guns.
By Jeffrey Fleishman, Los Angeles Times
June 4, 2010
Reporting from Istanbul, Turkey —
The wooden coffins of eight activists killed by Israeli commandos wound through the streets of Istanbul on Thursday as Turks wept and their leaders spoke of the irreparable harm Israel has done to one of its closest Muslim allies.
Turkish anger at Israel’s attack on a humanitarian flotilla bound for the Gaza Strip early Monday had appeared to be subsiding. But the funerals, along with harrowing accounts of returning survivors, added a fresh sense of outrage to the international crisis.
” Turkey will never forgive this attack,” President Abdullah Gul said on NTV television. “Turkish-Israeli relations can never be as before from now on.”
The diplomatic drama over Israel’s assault on the Free Gaza Movement flotilla widened when one of the dead was identified as an American citizen of Turkish descent. Furkan Dogan, 19, who was born in Troy, N.Y., but had lived for years in Turkey, was shot four times in the head and once in the chest, according to the state-run Anatolian news agency, which cited an autopsy report.
In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Cabinet debated how to handle calls for an international investigation.
Netanyahu’s advisors are divided over what sort of inquiry will be convened, officials said. Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who is facing calls for his resignation, is arguing for an internal military audit. Other ministers are recommending an independent commission with international involvement to ensure credibility.
Near Istanbul’s Fatih mosque, boys shimmied up poles and men climbed atop stone walls to glimpse the funeral cortege moments after a muezzin’s call to prayer swept across the skyline. The procession slipped past the mosque gates and into a city that was once the heart of an empire and now is struggling with disbelief, outrage and sorrow.
“Turkey was attacked going to help. We were attacked in full view of the world,” said Bulent Yildirim, head of the Turkish group IHH, one of the flotilla’s organizers, addressing thousands of mourners crammed into the mosque’s courtyard and beyond its thick walls. “We were martyrs and Israelis acted in shame.”
But amid bitterness and patriotism, there was frustration over what exactly unfolded in the predawn hours when warships and helicopters encircled the Mavi Marmara, the flotilla’s lead ship.
“We don’t know which side is right. We don’t accurately know what really happened,” said Boyrom Albayrak, standing beneath the mosque’s golden crescents. “We just know we don’t want this anymore. I’m very sad and a little angry, but things are cooling down.”
Thursday morning began on a less solemn note. About 350 Turkish activists with the Free Gaza Movement, most of whom had been on the Mavi Marmara, flew home before daybreak from Israeli detention. Celebrations turned into preparations for funerals , and survivors gave riveting accounts that contrasted with Israel’s version of the raid.
Activists who were part of the flotilla said they spotted warships about 1 a.m. Monday trailing the Mavi Marmara in international waters off the Israeli coast. Several hours later, after morning prayers, gunboats and Zodiac boats raced alongside as commandos threw hooked ropes at the ship in attempts to board. The activists said the Israelis were beaten back with sticks and water shot from fire hoses.
“The gunboats flanked us and darted in and out across our wake. It was like a pack of hunting dogs,” said Peter Venner, a forester from the Isle of Wight, England, who has supported Gaza aid efforts for years.
“There were explosions and flashes of light about 40 feet away, not to scare us but to alarm us. I leaned over the rail and then I heard a patter, very light, like gravel on the upper deck. I realized it was live ammunition.”
By that time, helicopters thrummed and commandos rappelled to the deck. One of the Mavi’s guards, who gave his name only as Halit because he feared retribution, said he and others shook the dangling helicopter ropes and subdued the descending Israelis.
“They were firing noise bombs and plastic bullets,” he said. “We used sticks and bars and slingshots. As soon as the soldiers came down, we took their guns and beat them with only our hands…. One activist running with me was shot in the forehead, another in the leg.”
The Israeli government said activists ambushed the commandos with knives and shot two soldiers after wresting guns from them. Activists said they never fired a shot and threw the weapons into the sea.
Interviews with six activists suggested confusion spread through the vessel after the Israelis stormed the upper deck and began securing lower decks, and a cabin turned into a makeshift hospital by Free Gaza doctors.
“I changed my clothes, which had blood on them, not mine but from others,” said Venner, a man with bright blue eyes and a graying Vandyke beard. “There was a lot of blood on the steps. I saw Israelis slip on the blood as they were coming down the stairs.”
Three Israeli soldiers had “bruises and one had a swollen face,” said Ahmet Sarikurt, a member of IHH.
“One Israeli was really scared. He seemed to have had a nervous breakdown. Our doctors were treating the Israelis and our people. No Israelis were shot. None of us fired a gun. We had no guns. They shot at us and took the ship.”
The Mavi captain announced the ship was in Israeli control about 7 a.m. The activists were handcuffed. Their cellphones, cameras and other belongings were seized. The Mavi sailed to Israel. In all, nine activists had been killed. More than 40 had been wounded.
The narratives played through Thursday, whispered beyond Koran verses and along the funeral procession as green vans, brocaded in silver, carried coffins draped in Palestinian and Turkish flags. “Terrorist, Israel.” “Damn, Israel.” Names and epithets were shouted by thousands under a blue sky.
Standing with veiled women outside the Fatih mosque, Hanife Rana Emre watched clerics in pressed robes. Men prostrated themselves on brown paper beneath the trees of the sprawling lawn. They called to Allah and then, like a hushed chorus, murmured in prayer.
“We are for the Palestinians,” she said. “If there has to be a war, the Turks will be in it, man, woman and child. They martyred themselves to God in a beautiful way. The Israelis should be called less than animals.”