ISTANBUL – ISTANBUL (AP) — Thousands of mourners hailed activists killed in an Israeli commando mission as martyrs Thursday, hoisting their coffins to cheers of "God is great," while Turkish leaders said Israel had jeopardized its relationship with its closest Muslim ally despite meeting Ankara's demand to release the hundreds captured in the raid.
The father of the youngest of the nine activists killed — 19-year-old high school student Furkan Dogan, who had dual U.S.-Turkish citizenship — praised his son for dying in a just cause.
Ahmet Dogan told the state-run Anatolia news agency he identified his boy in the morgue and he 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."
Dogan, who was born in Troy, New York, but moved to Turkey when he was two, was to be buried in his family's hometown of Kayseri in central Turkey on Friday.
He was one of eight activists mourned at the massive funeral in Istanbul, which 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 it prevents missile attacks on Israel.
The incident has increased tensions in the Mideast, especially with Turkey, an important ally of Israel. 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 that "from now on we will not bow to this bullying."
President Abdullah Gul said Israel committed "one of the biggest mistakes ever in its history."
"Turkey will never forget this attack," Gul said. "The relations between Israel and Turkey will never be the same again."
At Thursday's funeral, 10,000 people prayed outside Istanbul's Fatih mosque before eight Turkish and Palestinian flag-draped coffins lined up in a row. Seven Turks and American-Turkish dual citizen were honored, ranging in age Dogan, at 19, to over 60. A ninth victim, a Turkish man, was having a separate service on Friday.
"Let them do what they want, we know how to be martyrs for Palestine and Jerusalem, and that's what we became," said Bulent Yildirim, the head of the Islamic charity group IHH, which organized the Gaza flotilla, before mourners carried the coffins through the crowd to cars to be taken for burial.
"The whole world supports us," he told the crowd. "We will shake the foundations of Zionism."
Before dawn Thursday, thousands of people 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.
In all, 466 activists, including more than 50 foreigners, arrived in Istanbul early Thursday, along with Turkey's ambassador to Israel, Oguz Celikkol.
Israel maintains the commandos opened fire 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 clubs. Three or four activists overpowered each soldier as he landed.
Israeli officials have insisted that their military is investigating the raid already 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 the 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 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 had been wrested from them, while a third was stabbed.
Other activists scoffed at Israeli reports of finding weapons on the boats.
"Yes we had kitchen knives, because we were on there for some days," said Sarah Colborne, of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, after returning to London.
She was on board the boat where the main fighting occurred.
"We needed kitchen knives to eat — those are not weapons," she said.
Best-selling Swedish crime novelist Henning Mankell was on the bridge of the Swedish-Greek ship Sofia in the flotilla when the Israelis raided.
"After the soldiers checked the boat, one came back and said 'we've found weapons,' and then they showed my razor and box cutter," he told reporters in Berlin.
Another Swedish activist, Mattias Gardell accused Israel of provoking the activists.
"The Israelis started shooting first," Gardell said upon his return to Stockholm. "We had no weapons, the Israelis had weapons."
He said the activists could have used the weapons against the Israelis "but we chose to throw them in the water."
U.N. ambassadors from Islamic countries issued a statement after a meeting Thursday at U.N. headquarters in New York that "strongly condemns the illegal, brutal and provocative Israeli aggression," which they said "constitutes a flagrant violation of international law."
The Organization of the Islamic Conference ambassadors urged U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to immediately initiate "a full, impartial, transparent, independent and credible investigation in conformity with international standards" and demanded that the perpetrators be brought to justice.
The OIC ambassadors reiterated their demand for an immediate end to Israel's blocade of Gaza which they said "is tantamount to a war crime against the Palestinian people."
Another ship carrying aid is expected to challenge the Israeli blockade in the coming days. The 1,200-ton Rachel Corrie is carrying wheelchairs, medical supplies and concrete. The Irish vessel was named after an American college student crushed to death by an Israeli army bulldozer while protesting house demolitions in Gaza.
Israel will not allow the aid ship to reach Gaza, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told senior Cabinet ministers late Thursday. According to a participant in the meeting, he said Israel made several offers to its organizers to direct the ship to an Israeli port, where the aid supplies would be unloaded, inspected and transferred to Gaza overland, but the offers were rejected.
Netanyahu ordered his military to prevent the ship from reaching Gaza, but he also instructed his forces to act with sensitivity and avoid harm to the people on board the ship, the participant said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the meeting was closed.
Associated Press writers Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Mark Lavie in Jeruselem, Albert Aji in Damascus, Louise Nordstrom in Stockholm, Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations, Kirsten Grieshaber in Berlin and Andrew Khouri in London contributed to this report.