Israel moves to expel activists as world urges probe
JERUSALEM -Israel moved swiftly on Wednesday to deport hundreds of activists detained during a deadly raid on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla, as world pressure mounted for a full investigation of the fiasco.
The accelerated deportations came after calls by global leaders on Israel to release the detainees taken off six aid ships that were raided by Israeli commandos in a botched operation on Monday in which nine passengers were killed.
By mid-morning on Wednesday, some 130 Turkish nationals were already at Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv, with another 74 en route, immigration police spokeswoman Sabine Hadad told AFP.
Turkey said it was sending three planes to bring home around 350 activists detained after the deadly raid, while the Turkish Red Crescent said it would fly home another 17 passengers who were wounded in the operation.
Another 126 activists crossed into Jordan, the kingdom’s state-run Petra news agency said, which included 30 Jordanians as well as nationals from Bahrain, Kuwait, Morocco, Syria, Algeria, Oman, Yemen, Mauritania, Indonesia, Pakistan, Malaysia and Azerbaijan.
Meanwhile, the bodies of the nine victims were still being held at the Abu Kabir Institute of Forensic Medicine near Tel Aviv, although experts had not yet carried out any postmortems, a spokeswoman said told AFP.
“We have nine bodies but we have not yet been given the go ahead to do any invasive procedures yet,” she said, refusing to confirm or deny Turkey’s claim that four were Turkish nationals.
There was very little official information about the condition of the injured passengers being treated in Israeli hospitals, with Physicians for Human Rights putting the number at 52 and saying they had not been given access to any of them.
The decision to speed up the deportation of the 682 activists, representing some 42 countries, was taken at a late-night session of Israel’s inner security cabinet, which voted to have them all out within 48 hours.
The security cabinet was to reconvene on Wednesday for more discussion on the flotilla issue, which has sparked a diplomatic tsunami for Israel, particularly in its relations with former close ally, Turkey.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday warned that Israel was at risk of losing its only friend in the Middle East, after its deadly raid on aid ships.
“Israel is faced with the danger of losing its sole friend in the region and the greatest contributor so far to regional peace,” Erdogan said in a phone conversation with US President Barack Obama, a statement of which was released by his office.
“The steps that it (Israel) will undertake in the coming days will be determining for its position in the region,” said Erdogan of the raid which he earlier described as “insolent, irresponsible and impudent.”
Turkish nationals made up the bulk of the more than 600 passengers on the fleet, and four were killed in the attack, diplomats in Ankara have said, dragging Israel’s relations with Turkey to a new low.
Relations which were strained by Israel’s deadly 22-day assault on Gaza last year, deteriorated further after Monday’s botched raid, with Ankara scrapping joint war games and recalling its ambassador.
The operation has prompted global outrage, and on Wednesday Nicaragua became the first country to suspended diplomatic relations with Israel over the incident.
Dozens of countries, as well as the United Nations, the European Union and the United States have all pressed for an independent inquiry into the incident.
And Britain, France, Russia and China — four of the five veto-wielding Security Council members — have also urged Israel to lift its blockade of the Gaza Strip.
Speaking to his security cabinet late on Tuesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defended the blockade and said it would remain in place in order to prevent Gaza’s Hamas rulers from bolstering their arsenal.
“Opening a sea route into Gaza would constitute a great danger to the security of our citizens,” he told the closed-door meeting, according to a statement from his office. “Therefore, we persist with a naval blockade.”