Jerusalem — At 4:30 a.m. from her perch on the bridge of a passenger ship in the Mediterranean Sea, Hanin Zoabi saw the first lights of fast-approaching Israeli gunships and helicopters. Norman Paech awoke to the sound of explosions.
Minutes later, an Israeli commando, sent to take over the ship in what was expected to be a quick and easy operation, found himself lying on a lower deck, beaten and pulling a knife out of his stomach.
A storm of YouTube videos, grainy army footage and interviews is beginning to provide a clearer picture of the clash at sea that left nine pro-Palestinian activists dead aboard the Turkish-flagged Mavi Marmara.
The accounts of Monday’s events were sometimes conflicting and there was no way to independently confirm what happened.
Still, details emerging from the footage and interviews with Israeli commandos, defense officials and activists help explain how a voyage billed as an act of peaceful protest ended with a pre-dawn gunbattle — and a wave of international criticism aimed at Israel.
Israel’s decision to stop the protest boats by sending troops to commandeer them seems to have been based on the assumption — based on past experience and the activists’ own statements — that none of the passengers would fight.
The soldiers practiced several scenarios, but none involved serious resistance, Israeli defense officials said.
The situation spiraled out of control when dozens of activists converged on the top deck and attacked the soldiers, clubbing them down as the troops rappelled from a helicopter onto the ship one by one.
On Sunday, six boats making up the protest flotilla began sailing from waters off Cyprus toward the sealed-off Palestinian territory.
Free Gaza, a group made up mostly of Americans and Europeans, had sent ships before to try to bring attention to the 3-year-old Gaza blockade and the hardships of the territory’s 1.5 million residents. Israel and Egypt imposed the blockade after the Islamic militant Hamas, which most Western countries consider a terrorist organization, seized power and stepped up rocket fire into Israel.
Israel allowed some earlier ships to reach Gaza and stopped others, boarding a boat in at least one case. But the activists practiced only passive resistance and there was never any bloodshed. Ahead of this week’s mission, organizers again announced they would not offer violent resistance if confronted by Israeli forces.
But things were different this time. The largest flotilla by far, it was dominated not by Free Gaza, which sent only one small passenger boat, but by three ships sent by an Islamic aid group from Turkey, the Foundation for Human Rights and Freedom and Humanitarian Relief. The group, known by its Turkish acronym IHH, was banned by Israel in 2008 because of alleged ties to Hamas.
Around 600 of the flotilla’s 700 passengers were aboard the Mavi Marmara. Most were from Turkey and Arab countries, but the group also included dozens of Americans and Europeans, including lawmakers and an Arab member of Israel’s own parliament.
At the end of May, with the flotilla preparing to sail, Israel announced the boats would not be allowed to reach Gaza. The government offered to transfer any humanitarian aid to the Palestinian territory, but the flotilla’s organizers refused, saying their goal was to break a blockade they considered illegal.
Israel’s top military brass met to discuss how to stop the boats, according to Israeli defense officials. They considered sabotaging the vessels but rejected that idea and decided to send troops to board them and escort them to an Israeli port.
Previous operations had gone off largely without incident — even on two boats smuggling weapons — and officials believed there was little risk.