01 June, 2010

Israel Holds Hundreds Seized During Raid on Flotilla

A day after Israeli commandoes raided an aid flotilla seeking to breach the blockade of Gaza, Israel held hundreds of activists seized aboard the convoy on Tuesday as news reports said activists may be planning a fresh attempt to ferry supplies to the Hamas-run enclave.

The United Nations Security Council condemned “acts” leading to the loss of life in Israel’s operation in international waters on Monday that claimed the lives of nine civilians, many of them Turks. After hours of late-night negotiations, the Security Council urged an impartial inquiry — a call echoed in a separate forum by Russia and the European Union on Tuesday at a meeting of senior officials in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don.

For its part, Turkey, once seen as Israel’s most important friend in the Muslim world, recalled its ambassador and canceled planned military exercises with Israel as the countries’ already tense relations soured even further. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel was flying home after canceling a Tuesday meeting with President Obama.

Mr. Netanyahu defended the Israeli military’s actions, saying the commandos, enforcing what Israel says is a legal blockade, were set upon by passengers on the Turkish ship they boarded and fired only in self-defense. The military released a video of the early moments of the raid to support that claim.

Israel said the violence was instigated by pro-Palestinian activists who presented themselves as humanitarians but had come ready for a fight. Organizers of the flotilla accused the Israeli forces of opening fire as soon as they landed on the deck, and released videos to support their case. Israel released video taken from one of its vessels to supports its own account of events.

On Tuesday, activists promised more confrontation. Greta Berlin of the Free Gaza Movement that organized the flotilla said that another cargo boat was heading to Gaza from the coast of Italy while a second boat carrying some 35 passengers was expected to join it.

While the Israeli public seemed largely to support the navy, policy experts questioned preparations for the military operation, whether there had been an intelligence failure and whether the Israeli insistence on stopping the flotilla had been counterproductive. Some commentators were calling for the resignation of Ehud Barak, the defense minister.

The graphic footage of elite naval commandos being beaten and thrown overboard by demonstrators armed with sticks and knives has shocked a country that once prided itself on daring and secretive attack and rescue missions.

"Endless questions are being asked. What happened to Israel's vaunted creativity? Why was the worst of all possible options chosen? Where was the army chief of staff? Where were the intelligence services?" Ari Shavit wrote in the centre-left Haaretz newspaper.

"Why didn't we see that instead of tightening the siege on Gaza, we were about to tighten the siege on ourselves?"

The morning papers were filled with criticism over the mission, with many wondering how the defence establishment could have so misjudged the situation that they failed to even use tear-gas or smoke grenades to clear the deck of the Mavi Marmara before rappelling down without guns in hand.

"The Turkish flotilla is as much a 'peace flotilla' as (Iranian President) Mahmud Ahmadinejad is Mother Theresa," Ben Caspit wrote in Israel's Maariv daily.

"The naval operation ... was complete stupidity. A mixture of failures that led to a disgraceful fiasco," Caspit added.

"But above the (military) there is a political echelon. It is the one that has to make the decision. To be cautious. To take into account unexpected entanglements and scenarios. This echelon failed abysmally yesterday."

Israel's mass-selling Yediot Aharonot also faulted the political leadership, with columnist Sever Plotsker calling on Defence Minister Ehud Barak to resign over the affair, saying he had "failed miserably."

"There isn't a broom broad enough to sweep this failure under the rug," he wrote.

Big questions were unanswered: notably, how far Israel could continue to blockade 1.5 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip after condemnation from allies; and how Israeli commanders miscalculated the situation and dropped marines onto a Turkish ship where they felt they had to open fire to save their lives.

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 held 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 Monday's events. The military said the nine activist were killed when commandos, who stormed aboard a Turkish cruise ship from dinghies and helicopters, opened fire in what Netanyahu said was self-defence.

Israeli Internal Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch said most detainees would be free to go once they had undergone a process of checks and interrogation lasting about half an hour:

"They will have a medical examination, an investigation, questioning, and afterwards, whoever wants to leave Israel can go to (Tel Aviv) airport," he told local television.

Exceptions would be those suspected of involvement in violence. They would face prosecution, the minister said.

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