Israel is isolated by world condemnation after attack on aid flotilla

THE international community united in condemning Israel yesterday following an attack on an aid flotilla bound for the blockaded Gaza Strip that left at least ten people dead.

• A Pakistani demonstrator shouts slogans during a protest against Israel. Picture: Getty

Spontaneous protests erupted across Europe and the Middle East, as US president Barack Obama expressed "deep regret" over the massacre.

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Israeli forces stormed the convoy of six ships carrying aid yesterday in a pre-dawn raid that saw commandos abseiling on to a boat and shooting dead pro-Palestinian aid volunteers.

Four Scots were believed to be among at least 27 Britons on board the flotilla. Their fate was unknown last night, although the Foreign Office said no Britons were among the dead. Israel said its forces were forced to respond to "unexpected resistance" as they boarded the vessels, but one Scottish witness said the Israelis had faced no resistance.

Mr Obama demanded emergency talks with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu last night, as planned peace talks were cancelled. Foreign Secretary William Hague led the worldwide chorus of condemnation, saying: "I deplore the loss of life during the interception of the Gaza flotilla. Our embassy is in urgent contact with the Israeli government."

Calling for an urgent lifting of an Israeli blockade on Gaza, Mr Hague added: "The closure of Gaza is unacceptable and counter-productive.

"There can be no better response from the international community to this tragedy than to achieve urgently a durable resolution to the Gaza crisis."

He revealed that at least one Briton was among the injured as he demanded access to 16 UK citizens being held by the Israelis.

International leaders condemned the raid, while Greece, Egypt, Sweden, Spain and Denmark summoned Israel's ambassadors, demanding explanations for the violence.

Spain and France issued statements decrying the "disproportionate use of force", while Greece suspended a military exercise with Israel and postponed a visit by Israel's air force chief.

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UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon said: "It is vital that there is a full investigation to determine exactly how this bloodshed took place.

"I believe Israel must urgently provide a full explanation."

Mr Netanyahu expressed "regret" for the loss of life. but said the soldiers had no choice.

"Our soldiers had to defend themselves, defend their lives, or they would have been killed," he said. Israel said it opened fire after its commandos were attacked with knives, clubs and live fire from two pistols wrested from soldiers after they descended from a helicopter to board one of the vessels.

Night-vision footage released by the Israeli military showed soldiers dropping from a helicopter one by one and being grabbed by men wielding sticks on the lead boat, the Turkish-flagged Mavi Marmara.

The soldiers fell to the deck, where the men continued to beat them and dumped one of them from the top deck.

Five Israeli soldiers were wounded, two seriously, including at least one hit by live fire, the army said. Two of the dead activists had fired at soldiers with pistols, the Israeli army said.

"They planned this attack," said Israeli military spokeswoman Lieutenant Colonel Avital Leibovitch. "Our soldiers were injured from these knives and sharp metal objects … as well as from live fire."

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The ships were being towed to the Israeli port of Ashdod, and the wounded were evacuated by helicopter to Israeli hospitals, Israeli officials said last night. One of the ships had reached port by midday yesterday.

There were no details on the identities of the casualties, or on the conditions of some of the more prominent people on board, including 1976 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mairead Corrigan Maguire from Northern Ireland and Holocaust survivor Hedy Epstein, 85.

In Turkey, which unofficially sponsored the aid mission, 10,000 protesters converged on Taksim Square in central Istanbul last night to voice anger at Israel's use of force against an aid convoy with many of their countrymen aboard. Most of the dead are believed to be Turkish.

Smaller protests erupted in capitals across the Middle East, Europe and South Asia.

Several hundred people protested outside Downing Street in London to denounce Israel after the deadly raid. Chanting "Free Palestine" and brandishing banners condemning Israeli "war crimes", activists blocked Whitehall as they staged an angry but peaceful demonstration.

In Scotland, emergency protests were staged in Edinburgh's Princes Street, outside the Caledonian Hotel, and Glasgow's George Square. Smaller protests were staged in Dundee, Aberdeen and Inverness.

A national demonstration will take place on Saturday at the Mound in Edinburgh.

Veteran pro-Palestinian campaigner George Galloway described the operation as "a murderous act of piracy".

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The family of one of the Scots on board, Dr Hasan Nowarah, 45, from Glasgow, were desperately trying to contact him last night.

His wife Seonaig said: "We are just absolutely shocked and the problem is not knowing anything is really, really difficult.

"I haven't spoken to Hasan since he left Crete four days ago. I have been in touch with the Foreign Office, but no-one seems to know anything."

Theresa McDermott, 43, a post office worker from Edinburgh, was also on board. Her friend Carl Abernethy said:

"It is very worrying.

"The last I heard was that they were 65km from land, safely in international waters and they were going to wait until daylight to see if they could get to Gaza."

Mark Lazarowicz, Ms McDermott's MP in Edinburgh North and Leith, said: "She is a very brave woman, an ordinary post office worker who just felt she had to do something about the injustice in Gaza.

"I have been in touch with the Foreign Office, asking that they demand her release immediately."

Ali El Awaisi, 21, a history and politics student from Dundee, who is from a Palestinian family, was on his first aid mission abroad.

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His brother Khaled said: "They didn't have any guns or any arms, they were searched in Turkey. They were not allowed to have anything on board.

"I said to him: 'What if the Israelis attack?' He said they were planning to resist in as peaceful way as possible."

Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon condemned the attack and expressed her concern for the Scots involved last night.

She said: "My primary concern is for the safety of the Scots on board. The Israeli government must provide immediate reassurance of their well-being.

"This violence against a humanitarian convoy is rightly condemned across the world and demonstrates the need for Israel to lift the blockade."

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