Israel, denouncing flotilla as 'terrorist,' braces for next ship

McClatchy NewspapersJune 2, 2010 

JERUSALEM — Israel on Wednesday deported hundreds of pro-Palestinian activists who'd been detained after its commando attack Monday on a Gaza aid flotilla, and braced for the arrival of at least one more ship attempting to break its naval blockade of Gaza.

The MV Rachel Corrie, named for an American activist who was killed in the Gaza Strip in 2003, set off Monday from Malta toward the Gaza Strip. Carrying 15 passengers, including Mairead Maguire, a Northern Irish Nobel Peace laureate, it was expected to arrive in Israel this weekend.

Derek Graham, an activist on board, said they'd attempt to break the blockade to honor the memory of the nine people killed in the previous flotilla attempt.

"It's more vital than ever that we continue. If we don't deliver this aid, then those people have died in vain," he told Irish broadcaster RTE.

President Barack Obama and other world leaders urged Israel to ensure that there's no recurrence of a commando raid like Monday's.

"It's important to the president and to our country that we don't see the same kind of events unfold like they did the last time. So we are talking to our partners and are hopeful that we won't see a repeat," said Bill Burton, a White House spokesman. He said the talks under way were "productive."

However, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called criticism of Israel's actions "an attack of international hypocrisy" and said Israel would continue to counter any attempt to breach the blockade.

"This wasn't a love ship, it was a hate boat," he said. "This was not a peaceful operation, it was a terrorist operation."

Despite demands by friends and critics of Israel to end the blockade of Gaza, Netanyahu defended it, saying it had averted possible missile attacks on Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

The Rachel Corrie had been scheduled to leave with the rest of the Gaza-bound flotilla last week, but it was delayed because of technical problems.

Activists from the Free Gaza Movement who helped organize the flotilla said a larger group of ships was being assembled to attempt another breach of the Gaza blockade next month.

Israeli naval commandos seized more than 700 activists on six boats as they attempted to reach the Gaza Strip earlier this week. The activists were held in a makeshift detention facility before being moved to Israel's southern Beersheba prison.

Dozens of countries protested the assault on the activists, who were attempting to draw worldwide attention to the Gaza blockade by delivering more than 10,000 tons of aid. Israel said it would release all the activists via Turkey, which sent aircraft to transfer people to Istanbul.

Turkey, which sponsored the boats and had many nationals on board, has said that its relations with Israel are in crisis. Turkey once was considered Israel's strongest ally in the Islamic world. In the wake of the flotilla, it's recalled its ambassador from Israel and demanded that the blockade of Gaza is lifted as a condition to restoring full diplomatic ties.

"The future of ties with Israel will depend on the attitude of Israel," Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said during his visit to Washington on Tuesday.

Israel's blockade began in June 2007 as a reaction to Islamist Hamas militants wresting control of Gaza. It's used the siege to pressure Gaza's population in the hope that residents will turn against Hamas and that it will lead to the return of captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

However, political science experts, such as Bar-Ilan University professor Menachem Klein, say the blockade has failed and Israel should review its policies.

"It is a strategic failure on the part of Israel to continue on this path," Klein said, though he added that it was "highly unlikely" that Israel would lift the blockade in the near future.

(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2010

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