Activists send new boat to challenge Gaza blockade

Pro-Palestine activists have sent a new aid boat to Gaza to challenge the Israeli blockade

Published June 1, 2010 12:02PM (EDT)

Pro-Palestinian activists said Tuesday they had sent another boat to challenge the Gaza blockade as Israel faced outrage abroad and questions at home over its botched raid on an aid flotilla in international waters that ended with soldiers killing nine activists.

The raid provoked the most ferocious international condemnation of Israel since its war with the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip a year and a half ago and appeared likely to increase pressure to end its blockade that has deepened the poverty of the 1.5 million Palestinians living in the strip. The U.N. Security Council condemned the "acts" that resulted in the deaths and called for an impartial investigation.

Greta Berlin of the Free Gaza Movement, which organized the flotilla, said another cargo boat was off the coast of Italy en route to Gaza. A second boat carrying about three dozen passengers is expected to join it, Berlin said. She said the two boats would arrive in the region late this week or early next week.

"This initiative is not going to stop," she said from the group's base in Cyprus. "We think eventually Israel will get some kind of common sense. They're going to have to stop the blockade of Gaza, and one of the ways to do this is for us to continue to send the boats."

Protests have erupted in a number of Muslim countries including Turkey, which unofficially supported the flotilla, Indonesia and Malaysia, where a Palestinian man slashed himself outside the American Embassy.

Within Israel, the raid sparked intense debate over why the military operation went awry.

Israel sent commandos onto the six ships carrying nearly 700 activists after mission organizers ignored the government's weeks-long call to bring the cargo to an Israeli port, where it would be inspected and transferred to Gaza. In most cases, the passengers quickly surrendered. But on the largest ship, the Turkish-flagged Mavi Marmara, the forces encountered resistance.

Israeli commandos rappelled on ropes from a helicopter one by one and amateur videos showed them being attacked by angry activists with metal rods and one soldier being thrown off the ship. Others jumped overboard to escape the angry mob. Israeli authorities said they were attacked by knives, clubs and live fire from two pistols wrested from soldiers. The soldiers then opened fire, killing nine.

Israeli military analysts said it was a mistake to send commandos to board the ship and the military could have used non-lethal weapons such as tear gas. They also said the intelligence-gathering was faulty.

Retired general Shlomo Brom asked why the ships' engines weren't sabotaged instead.

"There were certain objectives to this operation. One was not to let the vessels get to Gaza, but the other objective was to do it without any damage to Israel's image," Brom told The Associated Press. "Certainly it failed."

The daily Maariv, in a front-page headline, called the raid a "debacle." But it said the soldiers on the ships who were taken off guard were brave.

A military analyst for the daily Haaretz blamed intelligence officials.

"The entire intelligence community had all the time it needed to follow the protesters' plans and preparation. Drones provided constant streaming videos of the ships, and it's safe to assume other means of tracing and sabotage were used: Signal jamming, signal tapping, possibly even live agents," wrote Amos Harel.

"And still, based on the commandos' testimonies yesterday, it's clear they were not prepared for what awaited them on the deck."

Military analyst Reuven Pedatzur, also writing in Haaretz, said he didn't understand why soldiers weren't ordered not to open fire with live ammunition under any circumstances. Commandos said they carried paint guns -- a non-lethal means to help control crowds -- and that the pistols they carried were meant to be used as a last resort.

The military "has sufficient means for gaining control over rioting mobs using non-lethal force," Pedatzur said. The fact that the operation was carried out at night likely contributed to the commotion on the ship, he added.

The flotilla was the ninth attempt by sea to breach the blockade Israel and Egypt imposed after the militant Hamas group violently seized the territory in 2007. Israel allowed five seaborne aid shipments to get through but snapped the blockade shut after its 2009 war in Gaza.

Still, there was little call in Israel for an end to the 3-year-old Gaza blockade. Israelis have little sympathy for Gaza, which sent thousands of rockets and mortars crashing into Israel for years before last year's war.

Israeli officials have not identified the nine dead but said they would later Tuesday. They said 50 of the 679 activists aboard the flotilla were taken to Israel's international airport for deportation. The others, they said, have refused to identify themselves and would remain in detention in a prison in southern Israel.

Israel has not allowed access to the activists who were taken off the six boats, but a handful who were deported had arrived home by Tuesday morning, including a Turkish woman and her 1-year-old child, six Greeks and three German lawmakers.

The Turkish woman, Nilufer Cetin, offered one of the few glimpses by activists into what went on during the bloody confrontation.

"There was a massacre on board," said Cetin, whose husband, Ekrem, is the ship's engineer and was still in Israeli custody Tuesday. "The ship turned into a lake of blood."

Turkey said it was sending three ambulance planes to Israel to return 20 Turkish activists injured in the operation and had other aircraft ready to fly back other activists. About 400 Turks took part in the flotilla.

Tensions along the Israeli-Gaza border were tense following the naval raid. On Tuesday morning, the Israeli military said Gaza militants infiltrated Israel and exchanged fire with troops. Israeli rescue services said two militants were killed, but the military would not immediately confirm that.


AP correspondents Karin Laub, Grant Slater and Matti Friedman contributed to this report.

By Amy Teibel

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