Israeli raid on aid flotilla traps U.S. between two close allies

McClatchy NewspapersJune 1, 2010 

WASHINGTON — The U.S., hoping to avert an armed clash between two close allies, Israel and Turkey, and the collapse of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, Tuesday urged caution on the international community as it endorsed a U.N. condemnation of "acts" that led to the deaths of nine international activists on an aid flotilla that was attempting to break Israel's blockade of Gaza.

Israeli commandos rappelling from helicopters attacked the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish passenger vessel leading the aid flotilla in international waters early Monday and were assaulted by some of the passengers. In the melee, at least nine passengers were shot and killed and dozens were injured, and Israel is now holding the ships in the port of Ashdod along with some 700 passengers.

The crisis, which threatens to escalate, has the U.S. caught between two long-time allies: Israel, its closest partner in the Middle East, and Turkey, a member of the U.S.-led NATO alliance and a Muslim democracy that's largely supported U.S. goals since the Cold War.

The U.S. is one of the few major powers that haven't condemned Israel's attack on the flotilla. The White House issued a statement offering "deep regrets for the loss of life and injuries sustained," but urged patience and said it was "working to understand the circumstances" of the Israeli raid.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met for more than two hours Tuesday with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who publicly suggested that the Obama administration's response to the Israeli raid on the flotilla, which set sail from Turkey, has been too weak.

After the meeting, Clinton emphasized that the U.S. supports an Israeli investigation into the debacle, rather than an outside international probe.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs read reporters the text of the Security Council resolution, which avoided blaming Israel directly and called for an investigation to determine who was responsible for killing the activists. Gibbs refused to say whether President Barack Obama accepts Israel's explanation of events.

Turkey called Israel's action "inhuman state terror" and warned that it may send warships with the next aid flotilla headed to Gaza. Israel responded that it had the right under international law to assault those trying to break an announced blockade, even on the high seas.

At Turkey's request, NATO permanent representatives held an extraordinary meeting Tuesday to discuss the Israeli operation, but took no further action.

Britain and France called on Israel to lift its "unacceptable" blockade of Gaza, where the militant Islamist group Hamas seized power in 2007 after winning more than half the seats in Palestinian parliamentary elections the previous year.

U.S. special envoy George Mitchell, due in Israel and the West Bank Wednesday on a previously scheduled visit, now must try to prevent the peace talks' collapse.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was scheduled to travel to Washington to meet Obama when the clash took place. Netanyahu canceled the visit and returned to Israel, where he expressed support for the operation and praised the soldiers involved.

Meir Dagan, the chief of Israel's Mossad intelligence service, told the Israeli parliament's Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defense that Israel is progressively becoming a burden on the U.S.

"Israel is gradually turning from an asset to the United States to a burden," he said.

Gibbs said the U.S. didn't have advance knowledge of the Israeli military operation, and refused to go as far as calling Israel a burden.

"No. Let me be clear here," he told reporters. "The United States and Israel, as I have said on countless occasions, we have a trusted relationship. They are an important, have been an important ally. And we are greatly supportive of their security. That's not going to change."

Aides to Netanyahu said he's been in regular contact with Washington, updating U.S. officials with information about the flotilla that supports the Israeli claim that activists on the ship attacked commandos with metal rods and batons.

Officials close to Netanyahu said he was "regularly updating" the U.S., and that the Israeli government was "nervous" that it could lose American support over the incident.

Israel has kept more than 630 of the 700 activists in isolation in the port city of Ashdod after they refused to undergo deportation hearings. The activists have refused to sign a document admitting that they entered Israel illegally.

At least 11 Americans were among those being held, and Israeli news media reported that one American might be among the injured being treated in Israeli hospitals.

Norman Paech, a former German MP, returned to Berlin, where he told reporters that he considered the Israeli operation a "clear act of piracy" because it was conducted in international waters. He also denied reports that the activists were heavily armed.

"Personally, I saw two and a half wooden batons that were used . . . . There was really nothing else. We never saw any knives," Paech said.

While the activists weren't successful in reaching Gaza, they did bring international scrutiny to the Israeli-led blockade of the territory, Paech said.

Speaking from their hospital beds in Israel, naval commandos who took part in the raid termed the operation an attempted lynching.

One officer, identified only as "R," said he was one of the first to rappel from a Black Hawk helicopter onto the ship. He said he was armed with a paintball gun, but didn't manage to remove it before he starting receiving blows from passengers wielding batons and metal rods.

"We knew they were peace activists," he said. "Though they wanted to break the Gaza blockade, we thought we'd encounter passive resistance, perhaps verbal resistance — we didn't expect this. Everyone wanted to kill us."

He explained that a group of activists managed to tie the rappelling rope to the ship and were attempting to bring down the helicopter. At that point, the Israeli commandos cut the cord, leaving them stranded aboard the ship.

Israeli officials said that despite the criticism, the same naval unit would likely participate in any future operation against ships attempting to breach the blockade of Gaza.

Greta Berlin, a spokeswoman for the Free Gaza Movement, which organized part of the flotilla, said two additional boats already had set sail for Gaza, and one was carrying a "large group" of Americans. She added there are plans for another flotilla to sail in July.

One top Israeli naval commander told the Jerusalem Post newspaper that Israel would use more aggressive force to prevent other ships from breaking the blockade.

"We boarded the ship and were attacked as if it was a war," the officer said. "That will mean that we will have to come prepared in the future as if it was a war."

(Frenkel, a McClatchy special correspondent, reported from Ashdod, Israel. Talev reported from Washington. Warren P. Strobel and Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this article from Washington.)

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