Turkish newspapers report that three of the four Turks killed were ‘ready for martyrdom’
A hardcore of 40 Turkish jihadis on board the Mavi Marmara was responsible for the violence that led to nine deaths and dozens of injuries on the flotilla taking aid to Gaza, the Israeli government claimed today.
The allegation came as Turkish newspapers reported that three of the four Turks killed in the onslaught had declared their readiness to become martyrs.
“I am going to be a martyr. I dreamed about it,” Ali Haider Banjinin, 39, from Kurdistan, told his family before leaving to join the flotilla, according to one report.
The brother-in-law of retired engineer Ibrahim Bilgen, 61, told another paper that “martyrdom suited him very much. Allah gave him a death he desired.”
A third Turkish casualty, Ali Akbar Yertilmis, a father of four from Ankara, had “dreamt of becoming a martyr”, a friend was quoted as saying.
“Roughly 40 people on board were jihadis who came for violence,” a government official said. “They were preparing to attack, to kill and to be killed.” The boat was carrying more than 600 passengers, around half of them Turkish nationals.
However, the source declined to confirm a report in Israel‘s biggest-selling newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, that some of those on board the Mavi Marmara may have had connections with al-Qaida. “There is no hard evidence of links with al-Qaida,” the official said. He added that the information gleaned from interrogations of those arrested was insufficient to secure convictions.
The allegation that a hardcore group was at the centre of the violence came as new video material was released by the Israeli military, which it claimed showed its troops coming under fire as the raid began. There are no clear images in the footage but naval commandos can be heard shouting: “It’s coming from all directions … real weapons … they’re firing on us … live fire.” One commando is then heard to say: “Shoot him, where is he?”
Since the botched raid on Monday, Israel has striven to portray its troops as coming under unprovoked attack by activists with links to militant Islamists.
Omar Faruk Korkmaz, of the Turkish humanitarian organisation IHH, which helped to organise the flotilla, and which Israel has claimed has links to Hamas and Hezbollah, said his organisation rejected the term “Islamist”. He said that Turkey was an Islamic country, and the IHH had no political agenda in any other country. “[Israel] claimed there were people with links to al-Qaida on board,” he said. “But they studied them one by one and are now releasing them all because there was no one affiliated with al-Qaida.”
The decision to release the detained activists was a political one, according to Giora Eiland, a former head of Israel’s National Security Council. “Israel let them go because of huge international pressure – not just from the Turks but also from European governments,” he said. The decision was “contrary to the advice of the professional people who thought it would be better to keep them and bring them to trial”.
The deaths, Eiland added, “were a direct result of the brutality of the people who were far from being peace activists”.
Diplomats describe the IHH as being “of interest” to several security and intelligence agencies because of possible links with terrorist groups. But it is also seen as a legitimate charity that does good work for Islamic causes.
Colonel Richard Kemp, a former commander of British forces in Afghanistan, who is in Jerusalem for a conference on counter-insurgency, agreed with the assertion that there was a core of violent activists on board the Mavi Marmara.
“These were not hardened terrorists but I’d say they had a violent anti-Israel agenda,” he said. “You have to distinguish between this type of violent activity and acts of terrorism – deliberately setting out to kill security forces and innocent people. I would say they were extremist activists, not terrorists.”
The Free Gaza Movement, which has organised eight smaller attempts to break the Gaza blockade by sea – five of which succeeded in landing – rejected the allegation of an extremist presence on the Turkish ship. “Every person on that boat was a civilian,” Greta Berlin said. “The terrorists on board those boats belonged to Israel.”
Free Gaza was “honoured” that the IHH had joined the coalition behind the flotilla, she said. “They are a very respected organisation.”
Every coalition partner was responsible for drawing up the passenger list for their boats. Berlin said she had no idea how the IHH put together its list.
Asked if Free Gaza had any regrets about mounting the flotilla in the light of its outcome, she said: “None at all. The Israeli government should have the regrets. We knew there were risks – Israel is a vicious enemy. Israeli soldiers came on board looking for a fight.”
The Israeli government official conceded that most of those on the Mavi Marmara were “not necessarily violent. There were also people from the Free Gaza movement who had nothing to do with Islamists.”
Col Kemp said: “Most of the people on the ship were there either because they wanted to deliver aid or to take part in a publicity stunt – they weren’t intent on violence. I suspect some of them were duped, and had no idea what they were getting in to.”
With additional reporting from Justin Vela in Istanbul