The number one color for Spring 2010!
JERUSALEM — Facing a furious international dispute and widespread condemnation, Israel on Wednesday began expelling hundreds of activists detained on board a flotilla of ships challenging its three-year blockade of Gaza.
Israeli officials said hundreds of people from the six ships were taken from a detention center to the airport at Tel Aviv and to the land border with Jordan. More than 600 people were held after the confrontation at sea on Monday in which at least nine civilian activists died in clashes with Israeli commandos.
The episode ignited international outrage and intensified pressure on Israel to ease restrictions on Gaza, a coastal enclave run by the militant Hamas movement.
Arthur Lenk, a lawyer at the Israeli foreign ministry, said Israel believed it had legal grounds to prosecute the protesters, but had also weighed the likely diplomatic and political consequences of doing so. On balance, he said, the authorities had concluded it was in the country’s best interests to deport the protesters.
The Jordanian news agency, Petra, said 126 activists, including 30 Jordanians and 28 Algerians, crossed from Israel by bus on Wednesday morning. The deportees included citizens of a dozen Muslim countries, many of which have no diplomatic relations with Israel. Sabine Haddad, a spokeswoman for the Israeli Interior Ministry, said 325 people had been taken to Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport to await flights to Turkey and an additional 76 were on their way there. Israel hoped to have deported all the captured activists by the end of Wednesday, she said.
The expulsions coincided with continued international pressure on Israel to ease its blockade one day after the United Nations Security Council said restriction on access to Gaza was “not sustainable.” In Britain, home to around 40 of the captured activists, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said Wednesday that the Gaza blockade was “unjustifiable and untenable” and called for it to be lifted.
Despite the bloodshed on Monday, pro-Palestinian groups planned fresh attempts to test the closing of sea lanes around the enclave.
Egypt, an important partner for Israel in keeping tight control over the flow of goods into the territory, said on Tuesday that it would open the land border with Gaza for humanitarian purposes.
According to The Associated Press, two buses carrying 150 Palestinians seeking medical treatment or holding foreign residency permits crossed from Gaza into Egypt at the Rafah crossing on Wednesday.
Israel’s relations with Turkey, once relatively close, also came under heavy strain. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey called the raid on the Turkish ship, which killed at least four Turkish citizens, a “bloody massacre” and said Israel should immediately end “the inhumane embargo on Gaza.” While a growing number of countries view the Israeli blockade as counterproductive, causing more harm to the population of 1.5 million Palestinians than it does to Hamas, Israeli officials insisted Tuesday that it was a vital Israeli security interest and even a matter of life and death.
“We know the meaning of allowing these boats to reach Gaza,” Silvan Shalom, an Israeli minister, told Army Radio, warning that they could bring “missiles, mortars and Iranians who will help them arm and train.”
The Obama administration backed the Security Council resolution that condemned “acts” resulting in the nine deaths on the large Turkish boat, the Mavi Marmara. But American officials said relatively little about the matter and diluted demands for condemnation exclusively of Israel. The statement called for an impartial investigation into the confrontation.
“The Security Council deeply regrets the loss of life and injuries resulting from the use of force during the Israeli military operation in international waters against the convoy sailing to Gaza,” the statement in the early hours of Tuesday said, adding that the 15-member body “in this context, condemns those acts which resulted in the loss” of lives.
Israel had issued multiple warnings to the pro-Palestinian flotilla, which was carrying thousands of tons of aid intended for Gaza despite an Israel ban on direct shipments to the territory. Seven Israeli soldiers were injured in the confrontation. Israel said its commandos had acted in self-defense in response to violent resistance to their interception.
Israel did not provide journalists with access to those detained. But some European activists on board the flotilla, who were deported and returned home, disputed Israeli accounts of the confrontation.
Norman Paech, a former member of the Left Party in Germany who was aboard the Marmara, said he had seen only three activists resisting the naval commandos, and called the Israeli response a violent overreaction.