By PAUL MCGEOUGH CHIEF CORRESPONDENT – Sydney Morning Herald
Last updated 09:19 04/06/2010
Kate Geraghty, SMH Kate Geraghty, SMH Kate Geraghty, SMH Kate Geraghty, SMH
FLOTILLA ATTACKED: Passengers on the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara carrying 600 activists look down from the decks to one of the many Israeli assault vessel that is about to attack the ship.
ASSAULT VESSEL: One of the many Israeli assault boats at the side of the Turkish passenger ship Mavi Marmara carrying 600 activists, part of the Freedom Flotilla to Gaza, moments before the battle for the ship in International waters.
ATTACK: Passengers on the second deck of the Turkish passenger ship the Mavi Marmara run as they are surrounded by smoke from the tear gas fired from Israeli assault boats shortly after the men had completed their evening prayer.
FLOTILLA ATTACK: Smoke from tear gas and explosions fills the second deck of the Turkish passenger ship Mavi Marmara causing men carrying poles to run away from the area.
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After four days at sea, Fairfax journalists witnessed the Israeli assault on the Gaza flotilla.
The Israeli attack was timed for dawn prayers – when a good number of the men aboard the Mavi Marmara were praying on the aft deck of the big Turkish passenger ferry, as it motored steadily through international waters in the eastern Mediterranean Sea.
The call to prayer could be heard across the water – haunting chords made tinny by the ship’s PA system, yet haunting enough amid tension sparked several hours earlier when the six ships’ captains in the Free Gaza Flotilla rejected a demand radioed by the Israeli navy – change course away from the Gaza Strip or be confronted with lethal force.
Pacing the Mavi Marmara at a steady 8 knots and just 150 metres to its port side, we were aboard the 25-metre Challenger One, the fastest but also the smallest boat in the flotilla.
It was a front-row seat for the opening to Israel’s Operation Sky Wind which, despite confident predictions by a gallery of Israeli officials, was about to go horribly wrong.
In the blackness before the rising of a burnt-orange moon, all that could be seen of the Israelis around us were pinpoints of light, as warships sitting a kilometre or more each side of the flotilla inched in – seemingly to squeeze the Gaza-bound humanitarian convoy.
Then, the tightening noose. Sneaking up and around every boat, there were bullet-shaped hulks which soon became impossible to hide as the moonlight made fluorescent tubes of their roiling wakes. First one, then two and maybe four could be seen sneaking in from the rear.
HUNTED LIKE HYENAS
They hunted like hyenas – moving up and ahead on the flanks; pushing in, then peeling away; and finally, lagging before lunging.
But as they came alongside the Mavi Marmara, the dozen or so helmeted commandos in each assault craft copped the full force of the ferry’s fire hoses and a shower of whatever its passengers found on deck or could break from the ship’s fittings.
Suddenly sound bombs and tear gas were exploding on the main aft deck, where prayers were held five times a day. The life-jacketed passengers on the rails at first seemed oblivious as those behind them donned the few gas masks that were on board and others, wearing asbestos gloves, sought to grab the devices and hurl them back at the Israeli commandos before they exploded.
In failing to get their grappling irons to hold on the rails of the five-deck ferry, the commandos in their Zodiac-style assault craft continued to be an irritant, or perhaps a decoy because at this point the Israelis opted for a critical change of plan – if they could not come up from the water, they would have to drop from the sky.
On hearing the machines, activists on the upper decks rushed to the top level of the ship – grabbing the commandos even before they landed, disarming them; beating them until, according to some who were present, leaders demanded the Israelis not be harmed; but in one case, one of the Israelis was hurled from one deck of the ship to the next.
The death toll stands at nine of the ship’s activists and maybe 30 injured – and there were claims from some on the ship that some of their comrades were missing, unaccounted for since the battle at sea and the chaotic arrest and deportation by Israel of the estimated 700 activists aboard the six vessels.
Four of the ships carried 10,000 tonnes of emergency supplies for Gaza, which Israel has kept under blockade since 2006 when Hamas won electoral control of the PalestinianOccupiedTerritories.
A year later Hamas retained control of Gaza in the face of an Israeli and US-backed bid to oust the Islamist movement from power.
The flotilla drew on funds from NGOs in Turkey, Malaysia, Ireland, Algeria, Kuwait, Greece and Sweden.
The international coalition of Palestinian support groups is determined to prove the Israeli blockade of Gaza is a Western-backed exercise in collective punishment – something that will be maintained until Gazans turn on Hamas. Tel Aviv claims it is vital to Israel’s security.
When the first commandos slithered down ropes from the helicopters we could see moving in over the Mavi Marmara, the protesters did not stand a chance.