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Israel denounced for deadly raid

Intercepts aid flotilla; 9 killed | Global leaders call for inquiry

By Isabel Kershner
New York Times / June 1, 2010

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JERUSALEM — Israel faced intense international condemnation and growing domestic questions yesterday after a raid by naval commandos killed nine people, many of them Turks, on an aid flotilla bound for Gaza.

Turkey, 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. The UN Security Council met in emergency session about the clash, which occurred in international waters north of Gaza, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel was flying home after canceling a meeting today with President Obama.

The White House, which had been at odds with the Israeli prime minister over settlements in East Jerusalem, released a statement saying that Obama had spoken with Netanyahu and understood his need to return immediately to Israel. In addition to regrets about the loss of life, “the president also expressed the importance of learning all the facts and circumstances around this morning’s tragic events as soon as possible,’’ the statement said.

With street protests erupting around the world, 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 that was raided, the Mavi Marmara, and fired only in self-defense. The military released a video of the early moments of the raid to support that assertion.

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.

The Israeli public seemed largely to support the navy, but policy specialists questioned preparations for the military operation and wondered 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 government failed the test of results; blaming the organizers of the flotilla for causing the deaths by ignoring Israel’s orders to turn back is inadequate,’’ Aluf Benn, a columnist for Haaretz, wrote on the newspaper’s website yesterday, calling for a national committee of inquiry. “Decisions taken by the responsible authorities must be probed.’’

The flotilla of cargo ships and passenger boats was carrying 10,000 tons of aid for Gaza, where the Islamic militant group Hamas holds sway, in an attempt to challenge Israel’s military blockade of Gaza.

The raid and its deadly consequences have thrown Israel’s policy of blockading Gaza into the international limelight; at the Security Council yesterday voices were raised against the blockade, and the pressure to abandon it is bound to intensify.

Attempts to issue a formal statement stalled after the United States rejected the strong condemnation sought by Turkey. Turkey proposed a statement that would condemn Israel for violating international law, call for a United Nations investigation, and demand that Israel prosecute those responsible for the raid and pay compensation to the victims.

It also called for the end of the blockade.

The Obama administration refused to endorse a statement that singled out Israel, and proposed a broader condemnation of the violence that would include the assault of the Israeli commandos as they landed on the deck of the ship.

Israel had vowed not to let the flotilla reach the shores of Gaza, where Hamas, an organization sworn to Israel’s destruction, took over by force in 2007.

Named the Freedom Flotilla, and led by the pro-Palestinian Free Gaza Movement and a Turkish organization, Insani Yardim Vakfi, the convoy had converged at sea near Cyprus and set out on the final leg of its journey Sunday afternoon.

Israel warned the vessels to abort their mission, describing it as a provocation.

The confrontation began shortly before midnight Sunday when Israeli warships intercepted the aid flotilla, according to a person on one vessel. The Israeli military warned the vessels that they were entering a hostile area and that the Gaza shore was under blockade.

The vessels refused the military’s request to dock at the Israeli port of Ashdod, north of Gaza, and continued toward their destination.

About 4 a.m. yesterday, naval commandos came aboard the Mavi Marmara, having been lowered by ropes from helicopters onto the decks.

Israeli officials say the soldiers were dropped into an ambush and were attacked with clubs, metal rods, and knives.

An Israeli official said that the navy was planning to stop five of the six vessels of the flotilla with large nets that interfere with propellers, but that the sixth was too large for that.

The official said there was clearly an intelligence failure in that the commandos were expecting to face passive resistance, not an angry, violent reaction.

The Israelis had planned to commandeer the vessels and steer them to Ashdod, where their cargo would be unloaded and, the authorities said, transferred overland to Gaza after proper inspection.

The military said in a statement that two activists were later found with pistols taken from Israeli commandos. It accused the activists of opening fire, “as evident by the empty pistol magazines.’’

Another soldier said the orders were to neutralize the passengers, not kill them.

But the forces “had to open fire in order to defend themselves,’’ the navy commander, Vice Admiral Eliezer Marom, said at a news conference in Tel Aviv, adding, “Their lives were at risk.’’

At least seven soldiers were wounded, one of them seriously. The military said some suffered gunshot wounds; at least one had been stabbed.

Some Israeli officials said they had worried about a debacle from the start and questioned Israel’s broader security policies.

Einat Wilf, a Labor Party member of Parliament who sits on the influential Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, said she had warned Barak and others well in advance that the flotilla was a public relations issue and should not be dealt with by military means.

“This had nothing to do with security,’’ she said in an interview. “The armaments for Hamas were not coming from this flotilla.’’

The fatalities all occurred aboard the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish passenger vessel that was carrying about 600 activists under the auspices of Insani Yardim Vakfi.

Israeli officials have characterized it as a dangerous Islamic organization with terrorist links.

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