- - Monday, May 31, 2010

Protests were held throughout the Middle East and Europe on Monday in reaction to Israel’s commando raid on a Turkish ship ferrying supplies to Palestinians that left at least nine people dead.

Israel defended the raid and posted video on the Internet showing Israeli soldiers during the raid being attacked with metal pipes and knives by the Turkish ship’s crew.

The incident prompted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to cancel a planned visit to Washington for a meeting with President Obama set for Tuesday.

In New York, the U.N. Security Council, prompted by Arab governments, convened a special session to discuss the incident, which took place in international waters near Gaza. The Palestinians and Arabs, backed by a number of council members including Turkey, also called for Israel to lift the blockade on Gaza, immediately release the ships and humanitarian activists, and allow them to deliver their goods.

Assistant Secretary-General Oscar Fernandez-Taranco said in his briefing to the U.N.’s most powerful body that the early-morning bloodshed would have been avoided “if repeated calls on Israel to end the counterproductive and unacceptable blockade of Gaza had been heeded.”

The White House issued a statement saying it regretted the loss of life. “The president also expressed the importance of learning all the facts and circumstances around this morning’s tragic events as soon as possible,” it said.

At the State Department, spokesman P.J. Crowley, said, “We are working to ascertain the facts, and expect that the Israeli government will conduct a full and credible investigation.”

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak telephoned Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and National Security Adviser James L. Jones to explain the raid. In a statement from Mr. Barak’s office, the minister said the raid was within maritime law. “The passengers on the Marmara beat our soldiers with every object they had and wounded some of them,” the statement quoted Mr. Barak as saying. “The soldiers defended themselves.”

Turkey condemned the raid and withdrew its ambassador to Israel. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the incident an act of “inhuman state terror” and requested a special meeting of NATO.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, whose country had been a longtime Muslim ally of Israel, urged the U.N. council to adopt a presidential statement circulated by Turkey.

The original draft text, obtained by the Associated Press, would have the council condemn the attack by Israeli forces “in the strongest terms” as a violation of international law, express deep regret at the loss of life and call for Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to undertake “an independent international investigation … to determine how this bloodshed took place and to ensure that those responsible be held accountable” and consider the issue of compensation.

The draft also calls on Israel to lift the blockade of Gaza and immediately release the ships and civilians it is holding. As of Monday evening, the council had taken no action on the draft.

The ship at the center of the incident was part of an aid flotilla sponsored in part by a Turkish nongovernmental organization known as the Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH). Israel banned the group from operating in its country or the Palestinian territories in 2008, accusing it of being a front and fundraising arm of Hamas, the Islamist militia that now runs Gaza. Leaders of the charity have denied those charges.

Israel has enforced strict border controls on Gaza along with Egypt since Gaza took over the security services in the strip of land in 2007. Hamas won a legislative election in 2006, but has opposed subsequent elections for the Palestinian Authority.

Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Danny Ayalon, on Monday accused the IHH of being a front for Hamas with ties to al Qaeda.

Evan Kohlmann, a terrorism analyst at the NEFA Foundation, said in an interview that he doubted the group has ties to al Qaeda, but that the charity had a history of support for jihadist organizations.

“This purported charity is a fairly extreme organization,” he said. “It has associated itself with a number of political viewpoints which are not only fairly militant but they seem to fall well outside of what one would normally expect from a humanitarian group.”

Mr. Kohlmann said the group, which was formed in 1995 in protest of the Serbian attacks on Muslims during the disintegration of Yugoslavia, was initially involved in the recruitment of jihadist fighters.

“In the 1990s, Turkish authorities acquired evidence that IHH was involved in not just humanitarian fundraising, but also recruiting fighters for conflicts in the Muslim world,” Mr. Kohlmann said. “A search by the Turkish authorities of the IHH offices in Turkey turned up weapons and hard-core jihadist propaganda.”

Izzet Sahin, a spokesman for IHH, told the Associated Press on Monday that his organization had no ties to terrorism and denied the Israeli charges.

The U.S. reaction was mild compared with that of other allies of Israel. A statement from India’s External Affairs Ministry said, “India deplores the tragic loss of life and the reports of killings and injuries to the people on the boats carrying supplies for Gaza. There can be no justification for such indiscriminate use of force, which we condemn.”

Russia, Egypt and Britain also condemned the incident.

Street protests against Israel were held in Turkey, Iran, Egypt, Pakistan, Jordan, France, England, Greece and Spain. In Istanbul, protesters burned a Star of David. Protests also were held in New York.

Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. Middle East peace negotiator, said the incident was bad for Israel on many levels.

“This feeds the efforts of those in the international community who seek to delegitimize Israel. This has undermined Mahmoud Abbas, who will have to toughen his position in negotiations or even suspend them. This hands Hamas a huge political windfall,” he said.

Mr. Miller, who is now a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, added that the incident “calls into question the competency and judgment of the Israeli security establishment who obviously explored a number of options.” He added, “If I were this free Gaza movement, I would be sending these boats every week.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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