Israel deports flotilla activists after world outcry

Jerusalem–Israel began expelling all activists seized during a raid on an aid convoy sailing to Gaza that has drawn international outrage and officials on Wednesday vowed to prevent any other ships from reaching the coastal territory.

Israel had said it would deport 682 activists from more than 35 countries taken into custody after the maritime assault in which nine activists were killed on a Turkish vessel.

About 200 activists have been transferred from a holding center to Israel’s airport near Tel Aviv, a Prisons Service spokesman said, and 123 activists already passed through a border crossing into neighboring Jordan.

The remaining activists would be released throughout the day, the spokesman said.

Amid widespread anger at the Israeli action, the UN Security Council called for an impartial investigation of the deaths, and the Turkish prime minister demanded the immediate lifting of Israel’s “inhumane” blockade of the Gaza Strip.

The 700 activists detained when Israeli marines halted the six-ship convoy heading for the blockaded Palestinian enclave included Turks, Arabs, Americans, Asians and Europeans, among them two politicians and Swedish author Henning Mankell.

In Turkey, a visibly angry Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan told parliamentary deputies on Tuesday: “Israel’s behavior should definitely, definitely be punished.”

Erdogan’s Islamist views and overtures to Iran and Israeli enemies are blamed by many in Israel for souring ties between the Jewish state and Turkey, once its closest Muslim ally.

Israeli media reported that families of Israeli diplomats stationed in Turkey were being flown home due to security concerns. A foreign ministry spokesman would not comment on the report.

The bloodshed also put Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s tense ties with US President Barack Obama under further strain. Netanyahu canceled talks with Obama to fly home from Canada to handle the crisis.

Obama, who has revived Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations through US-mediated indirect talks, said he wanted the full facts soon.

Netanyahu will convene his security cabinet to further debate what Israeli critics called a botched raid. Ministers have said the naval blockade of 1.5 million Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip would continue.

Israel says the policy is meant to prevent arms and supplies that could be used to build military infrastructure from reaching Hamas Islamists who rule the territory. It says any humanitarian aid can be transferred into Gaza, but only after passing Israeli inspection.

Asked how Israel plans to handle any other ships hoping to defy its naval blockade, Tzachi Hanegbi, head of the parliamentary Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee, said there will be no change in policy.

“We cannot let them to blur in any way the red line Israel has set,” Hanegbi told Israel Radio. “There is no option to let them in and help Hamas.”

The United Nations called for an impartial investigation of the deaths of the nine people, four of them Turks.

The Israeli military said the deaths occurred when commandos stormed the Mavi Marmara, the cruise ship on which most of the violence occurred, from helicopters and dinghies and opened fire in what Netanyahu said was self-defense.

The UN Security Council statement drew a sharp response from Israel, which said its foreign minister complained in a telephone call with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that it was condemned unfairly for “defensive actions.”

Cairo announced the opening of its Rafah border crossing with Gaza, which is ruled by the Islamist group Hamas, an offshoot of Egypt’s main opposition.

Hamas requested the opening. Cairo, coordinating with Israel, has rarely opened the border since Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007.

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