By Selcan Hacaoglu and David Rising
ISTANBUL – Mourners in Istanbul hoisted coffins Thursday to cheers of “God is great!” as they honored activists slain during an Israeli commando raid, and the father of the lone American killed praised his teenage son as being a martyr for a just cause.
The joint funeral came as Israel rejected demands for an international panel to investigate its deadly takeover Monday of six aid ships trying to break Israel’s three-year blockade of the Gaza Strip. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has hotly rejected calls to lift the blockade on Hamas-ruled Gaza, insisting the ban prevents missile attacks on Israel.
Some 10,000 people prayed Thursday outside Istanbul’s Fatih mosque before eight Turkish and Palestinian flag-draped coffins lined up in a row in a traditional service for the dead. Eight Turks and an American of Turkish origin were honored, ranging in age from over 60 to 19. A ninth victim, a Turkish man, was having a service on Friday.
“Our friends have been massacred,” said Bulent Yildirim, the head of the Islamic charity group IHH that organized the Gaza flotilla, before mourners carried the coffins through the crowd to cars to be taken for burial.
The body of Furkan Dogan, a 19-year-old with dual U.S.-Turkish citizenship, was to be flown to his family’s hometown of Kayseri for burial Thursday, the state-run Anatolia News Agency reported.
His father told Anatolia he identified Furkan in the morgue and his son had been shot through the forehead. Still, he said, the family was not sad because they believed Furkan had died with honor.
“I feel my son has been blessed with heaven,” he said. “I am hoping to be a father worthy of my son.”
Before dawn, thousands had flooded Istanbul’s main Taksim Square to welcome home hundreds of pro-Palestinian activists from the aid boats who had expelled. Israel, which has faced strong international criticism for the botched military operation, decided not to prosecute the activists in an effort to limit diplomatic outrage.
One large banner read “Murderous Israelis: Take your hands off our ships” while others in the crowd held signs reading “From now on, nothing will be the same” and “Intifada is everywhere — at land and at sea” — in reference to the Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation.
In all, 466 activists, including more than 50 foreigners, arrived in Istanbul, along with Turkey’s ambassador to Israel, Oguz Celikkol.
All of the nine slain activists died from gunshot wounds — some from close range — according to initial forensic examinations done in Turkey after the bodies were returned, NTV television reported, citing unidentified medical sources.
Israel maintains that the commandos only used their pistols as a last resort after they were attacked, and released a video showing soldiers in riot gear descending from a helicopter into a crowd of men with sticks and clubs. Three or four activists overpowered each soldier as he landed.
Israeli officials have insisted that their military already is investigating the raid and the country is capable of conducting a credible review.
“It is our standard practice after military operations, especially operations in which there have been fatalities, to conduct a prompt, professional, transparent and objective investigation in accordance with the highest international standards,” Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said.
Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, however, suggested that international observers could possibly be attached to an internal Israeli probe.
Returning activists admitted fighting with the Israelis but insisted their actions were in self defense because their ships were being boarded in international waters by a military force.
“We first thought they were trying to scare us,” Yildirim said, following his deportation from Israel. “When we started morning prayers, they began attacking from everywhere, from the boats, from the helicopters. Our friends only performed civil resistance.”
Yildirim said the activists fought the Israeli commandos with chairs and sticks and that they seized weapons from some Israeli soldiers, but threw them into the sea.
Israel says two of the seven soldiers wounded were shot with guns that were wrested from them, while a third was stabbed.
The incident has increased tensions in the Mideast, especially with Turkey, Israel’s closest ally in the Muslim world. On Thursday, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called Israel’s actions “a historic mistake.”
“Israel risks losing its most important friend in the region if it doesn’t change its mentality,” he said, adding later “from now on we will not bow to this bullying.”
Israeli spokesman Regev claimed that Yildirim’s IHH charity incited the violence on the ships and has terror links — charges that the IHH vehemently denies. The charity is not on the U.S. list of terror groups.
Other activists from the flotilla also insisted their purpose was peaceful.
“However much the Israelis are screaming that they have found weapons, it is just nonsense,” said best-selling Swedish crime novelist Henning Mankell, who was traveling on the Swedish-Greek ship Sofia in the Gaza convoy.
“On the ship where I was, they found one weapon and that was my safety razor, and they actually came forward and showed that,” Mankell told Swedish radio.
The Foreign Press Association criticized the Israeli army for what it called a selective use of videos confiscated from journalists on the ships to justify its deadly raid at sea.
The organization, which represents hundreds of journalists in Israel and the Palestinian territories, says the military seized video and equipment from dozens of reporters on the main aid ship Marmara.
It demanded Thursday that the military stop using the captured material without permission and identify the source of the video already released.
Associated Press Writers Suzan Fraser, Albert Aji and Malin Rising contributed to this report from Ankara, Damascus, Syria, and Stockholm.