- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 2, 2010

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday rejected criticism of Monday’s raid by Israeli commandos on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla, saying the blockade of the Palestinian territory is needed to prevent missile attacks against Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

The Turkish Parliament, meanwhile, called on the government to review all ties with Israel as the country prepared to welcome home Turkish activists who were detained after the bloody raid on the flotilla.

Mr. Netanyahu’s comments came hours after all remaining pro-Palestinians activists from the aid ships were sent to Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv to be expelled. Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein said Israel decided not to prosecute any of them, writing in an order Wednesday that “keeping them here would do more damage to the country’s vital interests than good.”

About a dozen female activists scuffled with security officers at the airport but were subdued, Israeli officials said.

One police officer, identified only by his first name, Shahar, told the Associated Press that two of the women jumped on his back and another punched him in the face.

Officials said Wednesday no charges will be filed, and the women, along with hundreds of other activists, will be expelled as planned.

In a statement broadcast from his office, Mr. Netanyahu defended the blockade and said the aim of the flotilla was to break it, not to bring aid to Gaza.

“Israel is facing an attack of international hypocrisy,” he said.

“If the blockade had been broken, it would have been followed buy dozens, hundreds of boats,” he added. “Each boat could carry dozens of missiles.”

He noted that the Israeli takeover of five of the boats went relatively calmly, but on the sixth ship, “we saw an action directed by terrorists affiliated with Hamas. This was not the ‘Love Boat.’”

“There was an attempt to lynch Israeli soldiers,” Mr. Netanyahu charged. “Are these peace lovers, pacifists? These are supporters of terrorism, extremists.”

Israel has come under harsh international condemnation after its commandos stormed the flotilla Monday in international waters, setting off clashes that killed nine activists and wounded dozens. The nearly 700 activists, including 400 Turks, were trying to break the three-year-old Israeli and Egyptian naval blockade of the Gaza Strip by bringing in 10,000 tons of aid.

Israel rejects claims that Gaza is experiencing a humanitarian crisis, saying it allows more than enough food, medicines and supplies into the territory.

By Wednesday evening, the Israeli Interior Ministry said 165 activists had been deported and another 505 were at Ben Gurion Airport waiting to be cleared for flights abroad. Three more activists, two of them Turks, are in serious condition and will remain in Israeli hospitals until they can be moved.

In Turkey, Yavuz Dede, the vice president of the Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief, or IHH, alleged that Israel has failed to account for all the passengers and crew on the six ships and was deliberately delaying the activists’ departure to cover up the missing persons.

“We see this delay in the planes (taking off) as an attempt to disguise the loss of people,” Mr. Dede told a press conference at IHH headquarters in Istanbul.

The Israeli Interior Ministry, however, said all those on board the aid convoy had been accounted for.

Turkish and Greek protesters were to fly home on special planes sent by their respective governments, while others from the nearly 20 nationalities on the ships were traveling on commercial flights. More than 120 activists from a dozen Muslim nations without diplomatic relations with Israel were deported to Jordan before sunrise.

A rally for the activists was being held in Istanbul’s main square on Wednesday.

The commando raid has seriously strained ties between Israel and Turkey. Turkey withdrew its ambassador, scrapped war games with Israel and demanded a U.N. Security Council meeting on the clash as a result. Hundreds of Turks protested Israel’s commando raid for a third day Wednesday, and Israeli diplomats’ families in Ankara began packing to leave following orders from the Israeli government.

The Turkish Parliament in Ankara held a heated debate on whether to impose military and economic sanctions on Israel. Lawmakers of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party objected to the measures, apparently to avoid aggravating the situation, but eventually agreed on a declaration that was approved by a show of hands.

The lawmakers said Israel must apologize formally for the raid, pay compensation to the victims and bring those responsible to justice.

“This attack was an open violation of United Nations rules and international law,” Deputy Parliament Speaker Guldal Mumcu said, reading out the declaration. “Turkey should seek justice against Israel through national and international legal authorities.”

Mr. Erdogan, meanwhile, chaired a security meeting Wednesday of the country’s top military commanders to discuss the Israeli raid, as well as Kurdish rebel attacks.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Israel agreed not to charge the activists after Turkey applied diplomatic pressure.

“We have clearly stated that we would review our ties with Israel if all Turks [were] not released by the end of the day,” Mr. Davutoglu told a news conference. “No one has the right to try people who were kidnapped in international waters.”

Mr. Davutoglu also called for an international commission to investigate the nine deaths.

The Turkish government said 15 injured Turks would be flown to Ankara, where they will be questioned by state prosecutors, who may press charges against those responsible for their injuries, the semiofficial Anatolian News Agency reported.

Also Wednesday, Egypt eased its naval blockade of Gaza, and at the newly opened crossing in the border town of Rafah, about 300 Palestinians entered through Gaza’s main gateway to the outside world. A smaller number entered Gaza from Egypt, and humanitarian aid also came into Gaza, including blankets, tents and 13 power generators donated by Russia and Oman.

Gaza has been under an Israeli and Egyptian blockade since Hamas militants seized power in 2007. Egypt’s opening of the border was believed to be temporary, although the government did not say how long it would last.

Fallout from the Israeli raid continued. Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega announced his country was breaking diplomatic relations with Israel, and British Prime Minister David Cameron urged Israel to lift the Gaza blockade, calling the raid “completely unacceptable.”

Pope Benedict XVI urged both sides to resolve the problem with dialogue, not violence, telling pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square that he was worried the raid would have “dramatic consequences and generate more violence.”

And on the horizon, another ship controversy was brewing. Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen appealed to Israel to let a private Irish ship deliver its aid cargo to Gaza but admitted Wednesday that Israel probably would block the ship because part of the cargo was concrete.

The 1,200-ton ship Rachel Corrie is carrying wheelchairs, medical supplies and concrete. It was named after an American college student crushed to death by an Israeli Army bulldozer while protesting house demolitions in Gaza. The ship was supposed to join the aid flotilla but was delayed by mechanical problems. It currently is waiting off the Libyan coast.

Those aboard include Mairead Corrigan, a 1976 Nobel Peace Prize winner from Northern Ireland, and Denis Halliday, who previously ran U.N. humanitarian aid programs in Iraq.

In Ankara, Turkish Interior Minister Besir Atalay said Turkey had beefed up security to protect its Jewish minority as well as Israel’s diplomatic missions. He said security provisions were intensified at 20 points in Istanbul alone. The city has several synagogues and Jewish centers that serve 23,000 people.

“Our Jewish citizens are not foreigners here. They make up an essential part of our community. We have lived together for centuries, and we will continue to do so,” Mr. Davutoglu said.

In 2003, al-Qaeda-linked suicide bombers attacked the British Consulate, a British bank and two Jewish synagogues in Istanbul, killing 58 people. In 1986, gunmen killed 22 people in an attack on Istanbul’s Neve Shalom synagogue.

Trade between Turkey and Israel was worth $2.5 billion in 2009, and Turkey’s exports to Israel were expected to rise by $1 billion this year, Turkey’s minister for foreign trade, Zafer Caglayan, told journalists.

“(But) if the state terror of Israel remains like this, all these trade figures will be ignored,” Mr. Caglayan said.

Associated Press writers Mark Lavie and Amy Teibel reported from Jerusalem, and Selcan Hacaoglu reported from Ankara, Turkey. Associated Press writers Suzan Fraser in Ankara and Shawn Pogatchnik in Dublin also contributed to this report.


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