Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Israel to expel pro-Palestinian activists immediately

By Janine Zacharia and Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, June 1, 2010; 5:31 PM

JERUSALEM -- Hundreds of activists who were captured aboard a flotilla bound for the blockaded Gaza Strip will be freed from an Israeli prison and expelled from the country immediately, Israeli officials announced Tuesday.

The 610 activists were being held in Ela Prison near Beersheba, in the south of Israel, after refusing to sign deportation papers.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's office said in a statement on its Web site, "It was agreed that the detainees would be expelled immediately -- according to the procedures set by law. The Interior Minister announced that the expulsion will begin this evening, and the assessment is that it can be completed in approximately 48 hours."

Forty-eight others taken into custody during the raid had identified themselves and were in the process of being deported or had already left, an Israeli official said.

Among those deported from Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion Airport were two Americans, retired U.S. diplomat Edward Peck and activist Joe Meadors, an Israeli Foreign Ministry official said. Peck is a longtime critic of U.S. policy toward Israel. Meadors was a U.S. Navy signalman who survived a June 1967 attack on the USS Liberty by Israeli fighter planes and torpedo boats during the Six-Day War, a raid that killed 34 crew members and wounded 171.

More than half of the activists -- 380 -- were identified as Turkish nationals. There were 11 Americans and people from at least a dozen other countries, including nations without peace treaties with Israel such as Syria, Pakistan, Algeria, Lebanon and Oman, an Israeli official said.

Turkey and Israel were coordinating a way to evacuate 25 wounded Turks to Turkey, an Israeli official said. A total of 49 activists were still hospitalized Tuesday.

The U.N. Security Council called for an "impartial" investigation into Monday's raid, which left at least nine activists dead and many wounded, and condemned the "acts" that led to the bloodshed.

The prime minister of Turkey, where the relief convoy originated, called Israel's seizure operation a "massacre" and recalled its ambassador to the country, while Arab, European and other governments demanded that Israel end its Gaza blockade.

Peck, who returned to his home in Chevy Chase on Tuesday morning, said in an interview that he was sleeping on the small Greek ship Sfendoni when Israeli commandos wearing black masks boarded it early Saturday. He said some passengers suffered minor injuries but that no one was seriously harmed, unlike on the larger ship leading the flotilla, the Mavi Marmara.

"All of a sudden, there was a thump, thump, thump" when the Israelis boarded, Peck said. "By the time I got to my feet, it was finished," he said.

A small group of passengers on the ship's upper deck locked arms and tried to prevent the Israelis from getting into the wheelhouse, Peck said. He said that there were minor struggles but that nearly all the passengers obeyed the Israelis' orders to sit down. The commandos used a stun grenade to subdue the last resisters, he said.

Peck said the Israelis were armed with automatic rifles and carried paintball guns, pepper spray and stun grenades as well. He said his ship was too far from the Mavi Marmara to witness the violence aboard that vessel.

The Israelis brought his ship into port and put him and the other passengers into a holding facility at the airport until they could be deported, the retired diplomat said. He said Israeli officials told him that the building material his ship was carrying for Gaza residents could be used to construct bunkers.

"Yeah, well, they could also use it to build homes," Peck said.

Inside Israel, support for isolating Gaza remained high, but commentators and officials questioned whether it was necessary to use force to stop the boats and asked why the naval commando units did not have more non-lethal weapons, such as tear gas, at their disposal.

Much of the disbelief here focused on why Israel didn't plan for a way to subdue those on board the boats in the flotilla without hurting them. Commentators described the whole incident as an intelligence failure more than an international diplomatic debacle. Some called for Defense Minister Ehud Barak to resign.

"The defense minister failed miserably. There isn't a broom broad enough to sweep this failure under the rug,'' Sever Plocker wrote in the daily Yedioth Ahronoth, adding that perhaps Barak's resignation would help mitigate some of the anger exploding against Israel worldwide.

The daily Maariv newspaper questioned why Israel waited hours to release video of its soldiers being beaten by activists aboard the ship, arguing that the images could help explain why the Israeli military had resorted to deadly force.

In Egypt, officials said they were opening the usually shuttered border crossing into Gaza as a gesture of solidarity and to allow the delivery of relief supplies into the impoverished strip.

Protesters demonstrated outside the Israeli Consulate in Istanbul, and Israel released an advisory warning Israelis to avoid traveling to Turkey, which had until recently been one of Israel's closest Muslim friends in the region.

Israeli officials insisted that the commandos acted in self-defense and defended Israel's ongoing blockade of Gaza, which is intended to isolate the Islamist Hamas movement that rules the territory.

Flotilla organizers, who for a week had been girding for a confrontation with Israel, said that the troops used excessive force and that those killed were unarmed. They said another boat, which had been delayed by technical difficulties and so was not part of the flotilla, was en route to Gaza and could be joined by another vessel. It was expected to arrive Wednesday. Israeli officials said they would prevent the ship -- the MV Rachel Corrie -- from entering Gaza's port as well.

Eight previous flotillas were either allowed to reach Gaza or were diverted by the Israeli navy without incident. This time, activists spent a year planning the eight-ship "Freedom Flotilla," soliciting the participation of international parliamentarians and the backing of the Turkish government.

Because of the much larger scale of this flotilla, and because of concerns about the presence of activists with alleged links to militant groups, Israel mounted a far more aggressive military response than it had before, officials said. Last week, Netanyahu consulted with his top security advisers and approved "Operation Sea Breeze" to try to stop the flotilla from reaching Gaza.

An Israeli Foreign Ministry official said all nine of those killed in the raid appeared to be Turkish nationals. The bodies of the dead were still at the Abu Kabir Forensic Institute in Tel Aviv on Tuesday awaiting identification. A morgue representative said a diplomat from the Turkish consulate had been called but had not yet come to identify the bodies.

Some lawyers for the detainees said they were denied access to those being held on Tuesday morning, but other lawyers said they were allowed into the prison later in the day.

Seven Israeli naval personnel were wounded aboard the Mavi Marmara, the flotilla's main ship. Netanyahu, who canceled a U.S. visit and cut short a trip to Canada to return to Israel after the deadly melee, visited the wounded military personnel after arriving back in the country Tuesday.

Israeli ambassadors were summoned across Europe on Monday as the European Union called for a formal inquiry. In a cautiously worded statement, the United States expressed regret about the loss of life but said it is seeking more information.

The ships that made up the flotilla, with about 700 passengers and 10,000 tons of supplies, set sail with much fanfare from Turkey and ports in Europe last week. The activists said they would not heed Israel's demand to divert to the Israeli port of Ashdod, and Israeli officials pledged that the flotilla would not be allowed to reach the Gaza Strip.

Gaza residents nevertheless dug trenches in the sea to facilitate the passage of the ships, and decorated their port with Turkish flags and a huge photograph of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Israeli commandos departed from Israel's shores after midnight on Monday and easily took control of the flotilla's five smaller ships. About 4 a.m., they lowered themselves with ropes from a helicopter onto the main Turkish vessel, which was approximately 70 miles off the Israeli coast, well into international waters.

Israel said it is allowed under international law to enforce a maritime blockade on international seas. "A state may take action to enforce a blockade. Any vessel that violates or attempts to violate a maritime blockade may be captured or even attacked under international law," the Israeli Foreign Ministry said.

In a statement to the United Nations, Turkey characterized Israel's action as a "clear violation of international law" and asked U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to "determine how this bloodshed took place and to ensure that those responsible would be held accountable."

Upon touching down, the Israeli commandos, who were equipped with paint guns and pistols, were assaulted with steel poles, knives and pepper spray. Video showed at least one commando being lifted up and dumped from the ship's upper deck to the lower deck. Some commandos later said they jumped into the water to escape being beaten. The Israeli military said some of the demonstrators fired live ammunition. Israeli officials said the activists had fired two guns stolen from the troops.

Israeli forces continued to land on the ship from above and climb aboard from boats, eventually seizing control and navigating the vessel into Ashdod hours later. Israel declared the port a military zone and prevented journalists from interviewing passengers.

Diana Buttu, a Palestinian lawyer who spoke on behalf of the flotilla organizers, said they had been emboldened by the scope of the media coverage surrounding the attempt to run the blockade.

Israel allows goods to pass into the Gaza Strip but limits, or prevents, certain categories, especially for construction. Many goods are smuggled into Gaza through underground tunnels from Egypt.

Flotilla organizers, from the Turkish nongovernmental organization IHH, or Humanitarian Relief Fund, said they were transporting 6,000 tons of cement, more than 2,000 tons of iron, 100 prefabricated houses, 500 wheelchairs, medical equipment, wood and glass for building, electric generators and food.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who is leading indirect talks with Israel brokered by the United States, declared three days of mourning. It was not clear what effect the Israeli raid will have on the negotiations.

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