A bunch of eyewitness accounts are collected here. Various left-wing blogs are trumpeting these accounts as contradicting the Israeli account, but there are actually more commonalities, or at least more important commonalities, than differences. The commonalities:
(1) Ship passengers armed themselves with makeshift weapons to prevent the Israeli navy from boarding. Israel claims that these passengers were well-organized with quasi-military discipline and had trained for this task. I don’t see anything in the eyewitness accounts to contradict that.
(2) When the first Israeli commandos landed, they were attacked by the armed passengers, beaten, and taken hostage. According to the eyewitnesses, some of the other passengers tried to protect the soldiers from being killed, and I haven’t seen Israeli accounts that say otherwise.
(3) All hell broke loose thereafter.
Note that the agreed-upon points contradict the initial claims of the Free Gaza spokespeople that their passengers would never, ever, intentionally engage the IDF with violence. Either they were lying, or didn’t realize they had passengers on board who were planning on a violent confrontation.
(1) Passengers claim that Israel first sent noise bombs and perhaps tear gas on to the ship, and also tried to land from the sea with grappling hooks, before the commandos started to land via helicopter. This is not so much a contradiction as it is the claim that the videos Israel has released don’t start at the very beginning of the operation, but only when the commandos start to land from the air. But assuming that there were armed men on board obviously trying to prevent the navy from boarding, I’m not sure why using noise bombs and tear gas changes the substance of the story; if anything, it reinforces the view that Israel was trying to take the ship with non-lethal force, and the response was a severe beating of the sailors who boarded by armed men who organized in advance for that purpose.
(2) A few eyewitnesses, in particular an Al-Jazeera reporter, claim that Israel used live ammunition before the navy boarded. It seems to defy credulity that Israel would fire bullets into an crowd of angry protesters, and then drop commandos armed with paint guns one by one into the midst of that crowd. Charitably, perhaps the reporter mistook other sounds for live fire. The other option is that the Israeli navy is murderous, its leaders completely oblivious to world opinion, and even more incompetent than what’s obvious from what we otherwise know.
(3) Israel says that the some of the activists had guns, and tossed them overboard to avoid capture. The activists claim that the weapons they tossed overboard were taken from the soldiers they disarmed. Since everyone agrees that the weapons are overboard, we may never know the truth. One oddity: the activists claim that they stripped the weapons of ammo, then tossed them overboard. But if you are going to toss weapons overboard, why take the ammo out first? Also, Israel claims that when Israel took control of the ship some of the activists still had the guns they took from Israeli personnel.
(4) Israel claims that all of the dead were armed and violent. The eyewitnesses claim some of them were journalists. At least one example may have involved a “fog of war” error–an eyewitness claims that a journalist was shot when he pointed a camera at an Israeli soldier. Pointing things at a soldier in the midst of a violent incident is not a good idea.
UPDATE: Here’s an account from the Israeli commando who turned the battle around and shot six of the nine fatalities. He says that Israel fired warning shots before commencing the helicopter landing. So a picture is emerging. Israel expected non-violent resistance, with perhaps some scuffling or whatnot. So the navy tried to board from the sea with the help of noise bombs and maybe tear gas. This didn’t dissuade the armed faction on board, which was armed and prepared for battle. (“The group was well trained and was split into a number of squads of about 20 mercenaries each distributed throughout the upper deck, the IDF said. All of the mercenaries wore gas masks and ceramic bulletproof vests and were armed with either bats, slingshots, metal bars, knives or stun grenades.”) With the sea route stifled, Israel send commandos to land via helicopter. The commandos fired warning shots and stun grenades, which they expected would disperse the crowd, as it would if they were simply activist rioters putting on a minor show of resistance. What the commandos didn’t know is that they were facing trained operatives, who didn’t flinch at the warning shots. This is when the navy made its huge error. When the warning shots failed to disperse the crowd, the commander should have recognized that this wasn’t a random crowd of activists as expected, but trained individuals intent on a violent confrontation. The mission should have been aborted right then and there, and a new strategy devised. Instead, some genius decided to send naval commandos one by one down into the hostile armed crowd. The first several to land were beaten to pulp and taken hostage, and, at least according to Israeli reports, the oncoming commandos were fired on, and also beaten. At this point, the commandos who were not captive began to use lethal force to defend themselves, rescue their comrades, and gain control of the ship.