Israel defied world condemnation, saying it will not lift its blockade of Gaza even as the United Nations took the first steps to investigate the killing of nine civilians on board a flotilla of protest ships.
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stridently defended Israel’s forceful interception early Monday of six aid ships headed for Gaza, noting that a ship can carry tons of weapons and hundreds of rockets.
“It is our duty to scrutinize each ship that approaches Gaza,” he told a news conference in Jerusalem. “I want to clarify to the citizens of the world what would happen if we don’t do that: It would mean an Iranian port in Gaza, at a distance of only a few dozen kilometres from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.” In Geneva, the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a resolution condemning the incident, calling for Israel to lift the blockade and agreeing to send an “independent international fact-finding mission” to investigate the raid.
The United States voted against, along with Norway and Italy, while other European Union states and Japan abstained. The U.S. called the vote a “rush to judgement.” In New York, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said he needed to further discuss with UN members about ways to launch the investigation, which is also supported by the U.N. Security Council.
Mr. Ban also issued an urgent appeal to prevent another violent incident as another blockade-running ship, the Irish MV Rachel Corrie, was expected to arrive off Gaza in two weeks.
“Everything must be done to prevent another incident of this kind,” he said. “At this sensitive time, it is essential to avoid provocations.” Israel early Thursday completed the release of the bodies of the nine people killed in the raid, in addition to deporting 527 foreign nationals who had been detained from the blockade-running flotilla, the country’s Foreign Ministry announced.
Three of the fatalities were positively identified as Turks, while Israel had been unable to identify the other six bodies due to lack of documentation or lack of cooperation by other passengers.
Seven injured activists remained hospitalized in Israel, while three uninjured detainees - an Irishman, an Australian woman and an Italian man - remained behind due to procedural problems.
Turkish ambulance and passenger planes and one Greek plane lifted off from Israel late Wednesday and early Thursday. Along with people released on Tuesday into Jordan, a total of some 705 activists of the Gaza “Freedom Flotilla” have left Israel.
In Jerusalem, a furious and rare clash erupted in Israel’s parliament between Arab and Jewish lawmakers over the fatal interception. Ushers had to keep the shouting, pushing and insult-exchanging lawmakers apart.
Calls for Israel to lift the blockade also came from British Prime Minister David Cameron, who said it “strengthens Hamas’ grip on the economy and on Gaza, and it’s in (Israel’s) own interests to lift it and allow these vital supplies to get through.” The six—ship flotilla was intercepted by the Israeli Navy in international waters before dawn Monday, and seized by Israeli naval commandos when the ships rejected an order to change course and proceed to the Israeli port of Ashdod, instead of the Gaza Strip.
“It was not the love boat. It was a boat of hatred. It was not a flotilla of peace. It was a flotilla of supporters of terrorists,” Mr. Netanyahu charged.
Mr. Netanyahu repeated Israel’s insistence that the Israeli soldiers who boarded “were attacked with knives” and were fired upon with their own guns after activists snatched them from them.
New Israeli military video footage showed foreign activists on board one of the six ships preparing for the expected Israeli naval take-over. The activists stand raising sticks in their hands when the Israeli naval forces approached. They are wearing gas masks and life vests.
The Israeli claims were disputed by one of the founders of the Free Gaza Movement, which organized the flotilla, Greta Berlin, who said the Israelis had started to shoot into the crowd for no justifiable reason.
Israel dispatched several truckloads of the aid on board the flotilla to Gaza, including medical equipment, wheel chairs, and some food, Major Guy Inbar told dpa.
Sacks of concrete and metal rods that had been on board were not transferred to Gaza. Israel alleges militants could use them to build fortifications and weapons.
Israel placed the Gaza Strip under siege in June 2006, after militants launched a cross-border raid and snatched an Israeli soldier, still held somewhere in the salient.
The blockade was tightened even further in June 2007, after gunmen from Hamas routed security personnel loyal to the Palestinian Authority and took control of the enclave by force.