Israel ready to intercept another ship, won't apologize to Turkey

McClatchy NewspapersJune 4, 2010 

ASHDOD, Israel — Israel remained defiant Friday in the face of international outrage over its assault on a pro-Palestinian flotilla, refusing demands from erstwhile ally Turkey that it apologize and preparing to intercept another vessel en route to the Gaza Strip.

The Rachel Corrie, named for a pro-Palestinian American activist, was expected to arrive in the vicinity of Gaza early Saturday. Israeli officials pleaded with the ship, which is carrying an Irish Nobel peace laureate, to submit to a cargo inspection at an Israeli port, but there was no sign that the order would be heeded.

Israeli and U.S. officials nonetheless expressed confidence that there wouldn't be a repeat of last weekend's confrontation, which left nine Turkish activists dead and several Israeli commandos severely wounded. Among those killed was dual U.S.-Turkish citizen Furkan Dogan, 19.

The bloodshed abroad the Mavi Marmara, some of whose passengers armed themselves with makeshift weapons to battle the Israeli commandos, has poisoned relations between Israel and Turkey, its closest friend in the Muslim world.

Turkey stepped up the confrontation Friday, threatening to downgrade or even sever relations with Israel.

A senior Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the tense situation, said that Israel would refuse Turkey's demands that it apologize, allow an international investigation and end the blockade of the Gaza strip, which is controlled by the militant Islamist group Hamas.

"Israel is not going to apologize . . . for defending ourselves," the official said. As for allowing unobstructed access to Gaza, "That is absolutely not going to happen" because it would allow Hamas to rearm, he said.

Israel and the Obama administration are discussing ways to balance Israel's security needs with more aid to impoverished Gaza, but those talks are just beginning, he said.

While the international community has condemned Israel's assault on the six-ship flotilla that tried to breach the blockade of Gaza, at home, support for the blockade has remained high.

Israel's largest newspaper Yediot Aharonot, played a large photograph of the naval commandos who took part in the raid on its front page. Underneath was the word "Heroes."

Israel's two other major dailies, Israel Hayom and Ma'ariv, carried the same photograph alongside supportive analysis of Israel's "well-organized military body."

Israelis have backed Israel's decision to continue blockading Gaza, which it began in June 2007 when, after winning elections the previous year, Hamas militants seized control of the territory by routing forces loyal to Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. The naval blockade was announced in March 2009.

Hundreds of Israelis have turned out in front of the Turkish Embassy in Tel Aviv to burn Turkish and Palestinian flags and chant, "Our Navy is good and strong."

Only a handful of Israelis have staged dissenting rallies or questioned Israel's actions during the assault on the activists' flotilla.

The gap between Israeli public opinion and criticism abroad isn't unusual, said Menahem Klein, an Israeli analyst.

"Israelis are closing ranks, and they are believing what the government is telling them," said Klein. "They are completely unaware, or uncaring, about the growing outrage from the international community."

He added that most Israelis identify with statements by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about the danger of lifting the blockade of Gaza, who said that if Israel lifted the blockade, the area would be flooded with weapons and increasingly hard-line groups.

Israeli television stations have repeatedly aired video of by passengers on the Turkish-registered Marmara attacking the Israeli naval commandos with sticks — images they say prove the commandos opened fire in self-defense.

On Friday, the Israel Defense Forces released audio footage of passengers aboard the ship telling Israeli soldiers, "Go back to Auschwitz."

Israeli television aired the footage accompanied by commentary on how IDF videos of the event had "far outstripped" those released by the ship's activists.

A senior IDF official, briefing reporters in Washington, said the team of about 100 commandos fired sound grenades to clear the Mavi Marmara's decks before they boarded it, but didn't use offensive weapons until they were attacked.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that some of the ship's passengers linked to the Turkish aid group IHH appeared to be "paid mercenaries," and they were carrying 1 million Euros (about $1.25 million). He said this group might have deceived the peace activists about its intentions.

Still, the official sounded wistful about the breakdown in the once-close Israeli-Turkish military alliance.

"(I) hope it will go back to the good old days. We had a great relationship," he said.

Writing in the Israeli daily Haaretz, military analyst Anshel Pfeffer said that Israelis have "hunkered down deep inside our collective bunker and have lost sight of any suffering or loss on the other side."

Standing in front of the Turkish Embassy Friday night, Moshe Ayalon and his two friends decided to show their patriotism for Israel rather then becoming patrons of local bars.

"We could have gone out to party tonight, but instead we came here. There will be other boats — probably tomorrow — who are coming to delegitimize Israel," he said. "But we here in Israel know the truth. We support our army and everything they do. We are a very united country."

As he spoke, rumors were spreading that the Rachel Corrie could arrive within hours.

"We'll stop it too, any way we can. It doesn't matter what the rest of the world says," he said.

(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent. Strobel reported from Washington)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2010

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