Activists send new boat to challenge Israel’s Gaza blockade after raid kills 9

By Amy Teibel, AP
Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Activists send new boat to challenge Gaza blockade

JERUSALEM — Pro-Palestinian activists sent another boat to challenge Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip on Tuesday and Egypt declared it was temporarily opening a crossing into the Palestinian territory after a raid on an aid flotilla that ended with Israeli soldiers killing nine activists.

The raid provoked ferocious international condemnation of Israel, raised questions at home, and appeared likely to increase pressure to end its blockade that seeks to keep Iranian-backed Hamas from building its arsenal of weapons but has also deepened the poverty of the 1.5 million Palestinians in the strip.

Turkey, which unofficially supported the flotilla, has led the criticism, calling the Israeli raid a “bloody massacre” and demanding that Washington condemn the raid. The White House has reacted cautiously, calling for disclosure of all the facts.

There were signs, however, that the long-term strategic partnership between Israel and its most important Muslim ally would endure: Turkey canceled three joint land and sea exercises, but appeared to be otherwise maintaining deep military ties that include the planned delivery of $183 million in Israeli drones this summer.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak spoke to his Turkish counterpart as well as their chief of staff Monday, and they agreed that the raid wouldn’t affect weapons deals, defense officials said. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were discussing sensitive military ties.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s spokesman, Mark Regev, indicated Israel would consider ways to ease the blockade to allow more goods into Gaza — a policy that has been quietly under way in recent months.

“We have been expanding the assistance that has been going into the Gaza Strip — both the volume and the variety of goods — and we have ongoing dialogue with the international community.

But he stressed that Israel could not end the blockade, fearing that Hamas would ship rockets and other weapons into the area. “We cannot have unfettered naval cargo going into the Gaza Strip,” he said.

Amid the tensions, the Israeli military said it carried out an airstrike in Gaza on Tuesday, and an Islamic militant group said three of its members were killed after firing rockets into southern Israel. Israeli authorities say the rockets landed in open areas and caused no injuries.

Two militants infiltrating into Israel from Gaza were killed in a separate incident Tuesday, the military said.

In other violence, Israeli hospital officials said an American woman lost her eye during a demonstration Monday in Jerusalem against the naval raid. Emily Henochowicz of Maryland was in intensive care after undergoing surgery, said hospital spokeswoman Yael Bossem-Levy. Witnesses said Henochowicz, 21, was hit by a tear gas canister in the face while Palestinian youths were throwing rocks, although she was standing at a distance.

The pro-Palestinian flotilla had been headed to Gaza with tens of thousands of tons of aid that Israel bans from Gaza. After days of warnings, Israel intercepted the flotilla under the cover of darkness early Monday, setting off a violent melee that left nine activists dead and dozens of people, including seven soldiers, wounded. Most of the dead were believed to be Turks.

Israel said 679 people were arrested, and about 50 of those had left the country voluntarily. Hundreds who refused to cooperate remained jailed and subject to deportation.

Israel says the Gaza blockade is needed to prevent Hamas, which has fired thousands of rockets into the Jewish state, from building up its arsenal. It also wants to pressure Hamas to free an Israeli soldier it has held for four years.

Critics say the blockade has failed to weaken Hamas but further strapped an already impoverished economy. It also has prevented Gaza from rebuilding after a devastating Israeli military offensive early last year.

Egypt, which has enforced the blockade with Israel since Hamas militants seized control of Gaza in 2007, said it was opening the border for several days to allow aid into the area as a humanitarian gesture. It was unclear, however, when Hamas guards at the frontier would let people out.

Several thousand Gazans — some in cars with suitcases piled on their roofs, others on foot — rushed to the Egyptian border, hoping to take advantage of a rare chance to escape the blockaded territory.

The Hamas Interior Ministry said authorities were not prepared to open the crossing and noted that government employees were on strike to mourn those killed in Monday’s raid. Large crowds of people milled about the crossing, occasionally shouting at border guards, but there was no unrest.

Dozens of Hamas police with automatic weapons patrolled the area to maintain order.

“We are working to help residents take advantage of this opportunity,” said Hamas Interior Ministry spokesman Ihab Ghussein. “We hope it will be open all the time, not just as a response to yesterday’s events.”

Greta Berlin said the Free Gaza Movement, which organized the flotilla, would not be deterred and that another cargo boat was off the coast of Italy en route to Gaza. A second boat carrying about three dozen passengers is expected to join it, Berlin said. She said the two boats would arrive in the region late this week or early next week.

“This initiative is not going to stop,” she said from the group’s base in Cyprus. “We think eventually Israel will get some kind of common sense. They’re going to have to stop the blockade of Gaza, and one of the ways to do this is for us to continue to send the boats.”

The Israeli military refused to say how it would respond to the arrival of new Gaza-bound ships. But Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said, “there is no change in policy” and urged activists to send the aid into Gaza through current, authorized means.

“We have no intention to use violence and there is no need for this to end violently,” Palmor said. “If they want the aid to get to Gaza, they can send through the regular peaceful channels. I think they understand that seeking confrontation will not do them any good.”

Protests erupted in a number of Muslim countries, including Turkey, which unofficially supported the flotilla, Indonesia and Malaysia, where a Palestinian man slashed himself outside the U.S. Embassy.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, an outspoken critic of Israel, told lawmakers the Israeli raid was an attack “on international law, the conscience of humanity and world peace.”

“This bloody massacre by Israel on ships that were taking humanitarian aid to Gaza deserves every kind of curse,” he said, demanding that Israel immediately halt its “inhumane” blockade of Gaza.

Turkey’s Foreign Ministry said four Turkish citizens were confirmed slain by Israeli commandos and another five were also believed to be Turks. Israeli authorities were still trying to confirm their nationalities.

Thousands of pro-Islamic and nationalist Turks have poured into the streets in Istanbul and Ankara since the report of the Israeli raid. Protesters with Palestinian and Turkish flags shouted “Down with Israel!” outside Israeli diplomatic missions.

Within Israel, the raid sparked intense debate over why the military operation went awry.

Israel sent commandos onto the six ships carrying nearly 700 activists after mission organizers ignored the government’s call to bring the cargo to an Israeli port, where it would be inspected and transferred to Gaza. In most cases, the passengers quickly surrendered. But on the largest ship, the Turkish-flagged Mavi Marmara, the forces encountered resistance.

Israeli commandos rappelled on ropes from a helicopter and army videos showed them being attacked by angry activists with metal rods and one soldier being thrown off the ship. Others jumped overboard to escape the angry mob. Israeli authorities said they were attacked by knives, clubs and live fire from two pistols wrested from soldiers. The soldiers then opened fire, killing nine.

Israeli military analysts said it was a mistake to send commandos to board the Marmara and the military could have used non-lethal weapons such as tear gas. They also said the intelligence-gathering was faulty.

Retired Gen. Shlomo Brom asked why the ships’ engines weren’t sabotaged instead.

“There were certain objectives to this operation. One was not to let the vessels get to Gaza, but the other objective was to do it without any damage to Israel’s image,” Brom told The Associated Press. “Certainly it failed.”

The daily Maariv, in a front-page headline, called the raid a “debacle.”

Sabine Haddad, spokeswoman for the Israeli Interior Ministry, said 679 people were arrested and handed deportation orders. By midafternoon Tuesday, some 50 people had left the country voluntarily. But hundreds refused to cooperate and were jailed.

“The rest said they wanted to go to jail and are at Beersheba jail going through a process of deportation,” she said. She said judges were hearing the cases and that almost everyone would be expelled within the next few days.

She said more than half of those arrested were from Turkey, with others coming from more than 30 other countries, including Britain, Algeria, Jordan, Kuwait, Germany and the U.S. Israeli police said four Arab Israeli citizens would face criminal charges.

Israel did not allow access to the activists, but a handful who were deported arrived home Tuesday, including a Turkish woman and her 1-year-old son, six Greeks and three German lawmakers.

“There was a massacre on board,” said the woman, Nilufer Cetin, whose husband, Ekrem, is the Marmara’s engineer and was still in Israeli custody. “The ship turned into a lake of blood.”

Norman Paech, a former member of Germany’s Left Party who was aboard the Marmara, said he only saw three activists resisting.

“They had no knives, no axes, only sticks that they used to defend themselves,” Paech said at a news conference in Berlin after he and four other Germans returned from Tel Aviv. He added, however, that he could “not rule out” that others used weapons somewhere else on the boat.

Turkey said it was sending three ambulance planes to Israel to return 20 Turkish activists injured in the operation and had other aircraft ready to get other activists. About 400 Turks took part in the flotilla.

The flotilla was the ninth attempt by sea to breach the blockade Israel and Egypt imposed after Hamas violently seized the territory. Israel allowed five seaborne aid shipments through but snapped the blockade shut after its 2009 war in Gaza.

There was little call in Israel to end the blockade. Israelis have little sympathy for Gaza, which sent thousands of rockets and mortar rounds crashing into Israel for years before last year’s war.

The Israeli-Gaza border was tense following the naval raid.

The Iranian-backed Islamic Jihad said three of its fighters were killed Tuesday shortly after firing rockets into southern Israel. Israeli authorities say the rockets landed in open areas and caused no injuries.

The Israeli military confirmed its airstrike, and Gaza’s chief medical examiner also said there were three deaths.

On Tuesday morning, the Israeli military said Gaza militants infiltrated Israel and exchanged fire with troops. Israeli rescue services said two militants were killed, but the military would not immediately confirm that.

Associated Press writers Karin Laub, Grant Slater and Matti Friedman in Jerusalem, Ashraf Sweilam in Sinai, Egypt, and Selcan Hacaoglu and Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, contributed to this report.

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