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Remembering Israel's deadly assault on the humanitarian Freedom Flotilla

Image of the humanitarian aid boat, the MV Mavi Marmara, before it left Turkey in 2010 [Farhat Jah/Flickr]
The humanitarian aid boat, the MV Mavi Marmara, before it left Turkey in 2010 [Farhat Jah/Flickr]

Seven years ago, Israeli commandos attacked a flotilla of ships carrying humanitarian aid and activists to Gaza. The assault took place in international waters in the Mediterranean Sea. Nine civilians were killed by the Israeli soldiers.

What: Sea and airborne assault on the Freedom Flotilla

When: 31 May 2010

Where: In international waters in the Mediterranean Sea

What happened?

A flotilla of ships — the Freedom Flotilla — set sail from Istanbul carrying six hundred NGO officials and aid workers from 50 countries, along with 10,000 tons of humanitarian aid valued at $20 million intended for the Palestinians in the besieged Gaza Strip. Elite Israeli commandos intercepted the flotilla in international waters and stormed the flagship, the MV Mavi Marmara.

The attack took place at 4.30am. Despite being unarmed, some of the passengers resisted the Israeli attempt to hijack their ship and divert it to a port in Israel. During the firefight that ensued, radio communications were blocked and all contact with the outside world was cut as the Israeli authorities sought to conceal the assault from the international media following the progress of the flotilla from afar.

Nine of the activists on board, eight of them Turkish citizens, were shot dead by the Israeli soldiers. Eyewitnesses said that some were shot multiple times in the head at close range, despite a white flag being raised. Almost 50 other civilians were shot and wounded during the assault. It is said that the Israeli commandos shot one person every minute for the duration of hostilities.

What happened next?

The flotilla was taken under armed escort into an Israeli port. The passengers were held in detention facilities and their personal possessions, including electronic equipment and cameras, were taken from them. Most were deported from Israel; those who were Israeli citizens faced additional legal processes. The aid meant for the Palestinians in Gaza was, it is claimed, delivered by the Israelis.

The attack was condemned universally and a number of investigations were launched. An independent fact-finding mission by the UN Human Rights Council concluded that the violence used against the passengers on board was "disproportionate" and charged Israeli commandos of "summarily executing" six of the passengers.

Relations between Israel and Turkey, which had been one of Tel Aviv's long-term allies, sunk to an all-time low. Turkey stipulated a number of conditions before it would return diplomatic relations with Israel to their previous norm, including an official Israeli apology for the deaths of the Turkish nationals and compensation for their families. The prosecutor's office in Ankara opened a criminal investigation with possible charges against senior Israeli politicians, including Benjamin Netanyahu, who stood accused of attacking Turkish citizens and piracy on the high seas.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) was asked to investigate the assault on the Freedom Flotilla. The chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, declined, saying that although there was a "reasonable basis" to believe war crimes had been committed the ICC had to prioritise larger-scale incidents. This setback has not stopped families and activists from searching for ways to hold Israel to account for its murderous hijacking of the flotilla, the attack on the Mavi Marmara in particular.

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