Israel processes Gaza activists and eyes new aid ship


Israel is today jailing or deporting hundreds of activists aboard Turkish-backed aid ships it seized on route to Gaza. Meanwhile, the Jewish state faces a UN call for an impartial investigation into the deaths of nine people in the takeover.

While Israel’s diplomats worked on damage control, its navy said it was braced to intercept another aid ship that could reach the waters of the Gaza Strip, an enclave run by Hamas Islamists, later today or tomorow. Big questions were unanswered: how far Israel could continue to blockade 1.5 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip after condemnation from allies and how it misjudged the situation and dropped marines on Monday onto a Turkish ship where they felt they had to open fire to save their lives.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, flying home from Canada after cancelling a White House meeting on Tuesday with US President Barack Obama, planned to convene his cabinet on his return to Jerusalem, officials travelling with him said. Obama, who has succeeded in reviving Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations through US-mediated, indirect talks, said he wanted the full facts soon and regretted the loss of life.

After more than 10 hours of closed-door negotiations that quickly gave rise to conflicting interpretations, the Security Council called for “a prompt, impartial, credible and transparent investigation conforming to international standards.” It also condemned “those acts which resulted in the loss of at least 10 (sic) civilians and many wounded.”

The use of the word “acts” instead of “act” — the term preferred by Turkey, which has accused Israel of “terrorism” in international waters — suggested that activists who attacked the Israeli boarding party also bore some responsibility.

Israel’s most popular newspapers described the interception operation as a “blunder” in banner headlines. “Nine activists dead, global outrage, a stammering (Israeli) government and recriminations at the top,” read one headline. Some 700 activists, many Turks but including Israelis and Palestinians as well as Americans and many Europeans — among them politicians, a Jewish Holocaust survivor and Swedish author — were processed in and around Israel’s port of Ashdod, where the six ships of the blockade-running convoy had been escorted.

They were detained incommunicado, ensuring no contradiction of Israel’s version of the events. The military said the nine activists were killed when commandos, who stormed aboard a Turkish cruise ship from dinghies and helicopters, opened fire in what Netanyahu said was self-defence.

The Interior Ministry said on Tuesday that 50 activists had been taken to Ben-Gurion Airport for voluntary repatriation. Around 629 had refused, and would be jailed while Israel weighed its legal options. Some 30 were in hospitals with injuries.

Israel faced an international outcry over the lethal interception operation. British Prime Minister David Cameron spoke to Netanyahu by telephone late on Monday and “deplored the heavy loss of life off the coast of Gaza,” a spokesman for the British leader said. Cameron “also stressed the importance of urgently lifting the blockade of Gaza, and allowing full access for humanitarian aid.” Israel says it transfers large amounts of aid to the territory daily and that there is no humanitarian crisis there.

Israeli Internal Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch said police were gathering evidence to prosecute activists who had set upon the marines with fists, batons, knives and gunfire. “All those who lifted a hand against a soldier will be punished to the full extent of the law,” he told Israel Radio. The European Union, a main aid donor to the Palestinians, demanded an inquiry and an end to the embargo. Netanyahu voiced regret at the deaths but vowed to maintain the blockade to stop arms smuggling by Iranian-backed Hamas.

Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, no friend of Hamas, which seized the Gaza Strip from his Fatah faction in fighting in 2007, called the Israeli operation a “massacre.” US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke by phone with Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak. Her spokesman, PJ Crowley, said: “Ultimately, this incident underscores the need to move ahead quickly with negotiations that can lead to a comprehensive peace.”

International outrage sounded more uniformly hostile to the Jewish state than during its offensive in Gaza, which killed 1,400 Palestinians in December 2008 and January 2009. Israel said it launched that war to curb Hamas rocket fire on its towns. But it has found it harder to win understanding for an embargo limiting supplies to Gaza’s civilians, including cement the UN says it needs to repair bomb damage.

The International Crisis Group, a think-tank, called for a complete change of tack by world powers and Israel towards Hamas. “Many in the international community have been complicit in a policy that aimed at isolating Gaza in the hope of weakening Hamas. This policy is morally appalling and politically self-defeating … Yet it has persisted regardless of evident failure,” it said.