Isolated Israel Begins to Deport Activists, But Stands Firm on Need for Blockade
At the same time, the Israeli Navy was mulling its response to yet another ship of activists attempting to reach Gaza, days after a six-vessel flotilla was boarded in international waters. On one of the ships, nine people were killed Monday after soldiers were confronted by what Israel describes as a waiting “lynch mob.”
“They were attacked with clubs, with knives, perhaps with live gunfire, and they had to defend themselves – they were going to be killed,” Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said in a statement Tuesday. “Israel will not allow its soldiers to be lynched and neither would any other self-respecting country.”
Monday’s deadly clash has drawn international censure, with the U.N. Security Council and the world body’s Human Rights Council weighing in.
More than half of the almost 700 pro-Palestinian activists onboard the six ships were Turks – as were at least four of the dead, according to Turkish media – and Turkey has led the campaign of condemnation. “Psychologically, this attack is like 9/11 for Turkey,” the country’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, told reporters in the U.S.
“Turkey will not let this go,” Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned Israel in a speech to his party’s lawmakers on Tuesday. “Turkey’s hostility is as strong as its friendship is valuable.”
“This insolent, irresponsible, reckless and unfair attack by the Israeli government, which trampled on every kind of human value, must be punished by all means,” he said. Erdogan has in recent years repositioned Turkey from being a close ally of Israel to its leading critic in the region, while developing warm ties with Hamas and Iran.
At the U.N. Human Rights Council (HRC) in Geneva, where a regular month-long session began this week, the prepared agenda was set aside Tuesday for an “urgent debate” on the flotilla incident.
More than 50 countries’ envoys spoke, with many using strong language to condemn Israel. Most called for an end to the blockade. According to a U.N. account of the three-hour debate, only one delegation, the United States, implicitly questioned the wisdom of the blockade-breaking voyages, saying that humanitarian aid destined for Gaza should go through existing “non-provocative and non-confrontational mechanisms.”
The debate was set to continue Wednesday, to consider a draft resolution introduced by Arab and Islamic states calling for “an independent international fact finding mission to investigate violations of international law resulting from the Israeli attacks on the flotilla of ships carrying humanitarian assistance.”
Israel is leery of HRC-initiated investigations, given the significant controversy over the last such probe, headed by former South African judge Richard Goldstone, which accused Israel of committing war crimes during its military offensive against Hamas in Gaza in late 2008-early 2009.
A Security Council statement issued in New York following an emergency session called by Turkey also called for “a prompt, impartial, credible and transparent investigation conforming to international standards.”
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Tuesday that the U.S. would support an Israeli investigation, but was open to “international participation.”
Facing criticism from around the world, Israel moved quickly Tuesday to announce that all of the foreign activists who had been on the ships, now docked in Ashdod port, would be deported within 48 hours. Scores have already left.
The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) also released footage showing the transfer of aid from the ships – after examination – by truck to Gaza via the main Kerem Shalom land crossing point.
The IDF had earlier advised the flotilla not to head for Gaza but to dock in Ashdod instead, where the activists were invited to observe the transfer of the cargo, once inspected, to its intended destination. The ships were boarded after the crews refused.
The deportation of the activists and release of the aid meet some of the international community’s demands as contained in this week’s U.N. statements.
But Israel is sticking to its position that it will prevent the unmonitored shipment of goods into Gaza, which Hamas has run since seizing power from Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah faction in 2007.
“This is a clear case of self-defense,” Netanyahu said. “Israel cannot allow the free flow of weapons, and rockets and missiles to the terrorist base of Hamas in Gaza. It’s a terrorist base supported by Iran; it’s already fired thousands of rockets at Israeli cities; it seeks to smuggle in thousands of more, and this is why Israel must inspect the goods that come into Gaza.”
Israel’s determination to maintain that policy looks set to be tested within days as another ship, carrying Irish activists including a Nobel Peace laureate, plies its way across the Mediterranean from Malta, heading for Gaza.
The Irish government and lawmakers have called on Israel to allow the MV Rachel Corrie, to complete its mission; the Free Gaza Movement says it is due to arrive at the weekend.
‘Threats from the sea’
Israeli control over the waters off Gaza is in accordance with the Oslo Accords signed with the Palestinians in 1993 and 1995, which laid the foundations for Palestinian self-rule in Gaza and parts of the West Bank. The accords affirmed Israel’s responsibility for external security, and to counter any “threats from the sea and from the air.”
During the second half of 2008, pro-Palestinian international activists on boats defied the Israeli blockade of Gaza five times.
In late November, Israel blocked a Gaza-bound ship, which hailed from Libya. Israel at the time said a distinction should be made between a ship from a country which “has declared Israel to be its enemy” and small boats making the run from Cyprus.
But that December, with the Israeli offensive against Hamas underway, the Israeli Navy began clamping down on the campaign. It turned back some boats and diverted others to Ashdod.
Before this week, the previous incidents all passed off without violence or injuries (although in one Dec. 2008 incident, activists accused Israel of intentionally ramming their boat; Israel said the boat tried to outmaneuver an Israeli ship and collided into it, lightly damaging both vessels.)
A document submitted to Israel’s High Court on Tuesday by the State Attorney’s Office outlined the government’s position on the risks of allowing pro-Palestinian activists’ ships to reach Gaza unchecked.
“There is no doubt that if Israel had taken a naive approach regarding ‘clearing the sea route’ towards the Gaza coast by the aforesaid flotilla, and if it had conceded on its determined enforcement of the naval blockade in this case, merely because the ships flew the ‘flag of peace,’ the State would have thereby allowed the creation of a new reality (which would have been impossible to halt),” it said.
“Any vessel, whatever its cargo (such as that of the Karine A, for example), would find its way – without oversight – to the coast of the Gaza terrorist authority, as long as it flew the ‘flag of peace’ and on its decks were found the ‘spokespeople’ of a ‘peace lobby’ from somewhere in the world,” the State Attorney document said.
The Karine A was a ship intercepted by the Israeli Navy in the Red Sea in January 2002, carrying more than 50 tons of advanced weaponry, destined for Gaza.
Eight months earlier, a fishing vessel from Lebanon, Santorini was accosted in the Mediterranean, also carrying weapons bound for Gaza, including anti-aircraft missiles.
In both cases the IDF boarded and seized the ships without any shots being fired.