- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 23, 2011

An Israeli inquiry into last year’s deadly commando raid on a six-ship flotilla seeking to break the country’s blockade of the Gaza Strip released its findings Sunday, exonerating the government, the military, and the soldiers involved in the incident — a report that comes as the flotilla’s organizers prepare an even larger convoy for this spring.

The commission said that “the actions carried out by Israel on May 31, 2010, to enforce the naval blockade had the regrettable consequences of the loss of human life and physical injuries” but that “the actions taken were found to be legal pursuant to the rules of international law.”

Nine passengers on the Turkish-flagged Mavi Marmara were killed after clashing with the Israeli commandos who boarded the ship in international waters. The report said that the “ID personnel acted professionally in the face of extensive and unanticipated violence.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the report, saying that “IDF [Israel Defense Forces] soldiers defended themselves and their country,” while Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said it had “no value or credibility.” The findings, as well as Turkey’s own flotilla report, have been submitted to a United Nations review panel that will comment on the incident in April.

Meanwhile, the leaders of the “Freedom Flotilla” are ramping up plans for “Freedom Flotilla 2.”

In interviews with The Washington Times, pro-Palestinian activists said they expect the sequel to far exceed the original in the number of boats, passengers, groups involved and nations represented.

“We have at least 15 different groups right now at one or two boats each,” said Huwaida Arraf, chairperson of the Free Gaza Movement, one of the leading nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in the effort. “Every meeting we have, we get one or two new country-based networks or coalitions that want to join.”

Huseyn Oruc, deputy president of the Humanitarian Relief Foundation — the Istanbul-based Islamic NGO whose members were killed in the clash — predicted that “it will not be less than 40 or 50 boats.”

Other flotilla leaders, such as Free Gaza Movement co-founder Paul Larudee, offered more conservative estimates, saying they would be thrilled to get 20 vessels. Mr. Larudee said the number is “up in the air.”

“I don’t think anyone can give you a really accurate answer because the boats are in various stages of acquisition and preparation, and you have all sorts of intentions and various groups and in various stages of fundraising, and so on and so forth,” he said.

Organizers said that Freedom Flotilla 2 will set sail sometime between March 30 and the May 31 anniversary of the bloodshed.

“May 31 would be a very good date for many reasons,” said Dror Feiler, spokesman for Ship to Gaza-Sweden. “To pay tribute to the martyrs who died for the people of Gaza and human rights. From a media perspective. And also logistics: It is not too early, and we will be very well prepared. Others want to go sooner.”

The flotilla incident deepened the emerging rift between longtime allies Turkey and Israel. Ankara has said it will not restore relations until Israel apologizes for the deaths and compensates the bereaved families. Jerusalem reportedly has agreed to the latter demand but has refused to issue a formal apology.

According to Ibrahim Kalin, chief adviser to Mr. Erdogan, Ankara is also demanding a complete end to the blockade, including the naval aspect, which the Jewish state argues is essential to prevent seaborne arms shipments to Hamas, the Islamist group that rules Gaza.

“I understand Israeli security concerns,” Mr. Kalin said in an interview, emphasizing that security arrangements would be key to any peace agreement.

“But Israeli security cannot come at the expense of Palestinian aspirations for freedom and an independent state,” he said. “Right now, you’re talking about fear on the Israeli side, but you’re talking about an open-air prison on the Palestinian side. You’re talking about hundreds of thousands of people stranded in a little piece of land controlled by Israel.”

Israel, which occupied Gaza after capturing it from Egypt in 1967’s Six-Day War, withdrew all settlers and soldiers in August 2005 but retained control of the territory’s airspace and coastline. It imposed a blockade that severely restricted the flow of goods and people after Hamas’ June 2007 takeover.

Under international pressure after the flotilla incident, Israel significantly relaxed the closure, replacing a list of goods permitted into Gaza Strip with a shorter list of prohibited items with possible military uses.

The number of allowed exports also has increased, though activists say the measures do not go nearly far enough — and that they intend to keep the pressure on Israel until the restrictions are lifted.

“Our message,” said Mr. Feiler, “is that we are going to go again and again and again until the siege of Gaza ends.”

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