Middle East news
U.N. CONDEMNS ISRAEL FOR ATTACK ON AID CONVOY
By Catherine Philp (Washington) and James Hider (Ashdod)
Times Online (London)
June 1, 2010
Pressure on Israel to lift its blockade of Gaza increased further last night as the U.N. Security Council prepared to call for an end to the blockade in the wake of a deadly attack on civilian aid ships in international waters. A Turkish charity in Gaza said that 19 people were missing; Israel put the death toll at 9.
As outrage grew over Israel’s attack on the flotilla of mostly Turkish aid vessels bound for Gaza, Security Council members, who had broken off from their spring holiday to hold an emergency session prepared a draft document calling on Israel to lift its blockade and immediately release the ships and hundreds of international activists arrested on board them.
Israel was called on to explain its use of “disproportionate force” against the humanitarian workers and Ban Ki Moon, the Secretary-General, said that he was shocked by the killings and demanded answers urgently.
Riyad Mansour, the Palestinian U.N. observer, called the attack on unarmed civilians on board foreign ships in international waters a “war crime,” and said it would not stop more ships from attempting to celiver aid to Gaza.
“Those fleets, one after the other, will be coming until the unethical blockade is put to an end and the suffering stops for our people,” he said.
Last night around 700 activists, many Turks but including Israelis and Palestinians as well as Americans and many Europeans -- among them politicians, a Jewish Holocaust survivor, and two Australian journailsts -- were still being held incommunicado in and around Israel’s port of Ashdod, where the six ships had been escorted.
The military said the nine activists were killed when commandos, who stormed aboard a Turkish cruise ship from dinghies and helicopters, opened fire in what Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said was self-defense.
The European Union unanimously condemned the violence and demanded an impartial inquiry. European governments summoned Israeli ambassadors while protesters flocked to Israeli and U.S. embassies to vent their fury.
The backlash was greatest of all in Turkey -- Israel’s only ally in the region -- which recalled its ambassador and asked NATO to convene an emergency meeting in Brussels today. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish Prime Minister, denounced the raid as “inhuman state terror.” Tens of thousands of Turks took to the streets calling for revenge. “Nobody should think we will keep quiet in the face of this,” Mr. Erdogan said.
The focus was shifting to Israel’s blockade of Gaza. Oscar Fernandez-Taranco, the assistant Secretary-General of the U.N. Security Council, told council members that the bloodshed would have been avoided “if repeated calls on Israel to end the counterproductive and unacceptable blockade of Gaza had been heeded.”
Sir Mark Lyall Grant, Britain’s Ambassador to the U.N., told the Security Council: “These events are clearly very serious, but we cannot view them in isolation . . . Israel’s restrictions on access to Gaza must be lifted. The current closure is unacceptable and counter-productive.”
Mr. Netanyahu was flying back to Israel from Canada to deal with the crisis, having been forced to cancel a visit to the White House and, with it, the opportunity to mend Israeli-U.S. relations.
Mr. Netanyahu had said earlier that he would continue with his trip but changed his mind as the scale of international uproar grew. “We regret the loss of life,” he said before he left Canada. “Our soldiers had to defend themselves to defend their lives.”
Ehud Barak, the Israeli Defense Minister, blamed the pro-Palestinian activists themselves, calling their mission “a political provocation.”
The White House said that President Obama had spoken by telephone with Mr. Netanyahu and “expressed the importance of learning all the facts and circumstances around this morning’s tragic events as soon as possible.” The incident comes as a serious blow to efforts to patch up relations after a series of embarrassing spats over Israeli expansion in east Jerusalem.
The Palestinian Prime Minister, Mahmoud Abbas, who described the incident as a “massacre”, is due to meet Mr. Obama next week to discuss the continuing efforts at resuming face-to-face peace talks. Hamas seized on the attack to urge Mr. Abbas to halt all negotiations, direct or indirect, with Israel.
The Gaza Freedom Flotilla sailed from Cyprus on Sunday to deliver 10,000 tons of supplies, from building materials to electric wheelchairs. Such deliveries are banned by Israel to cut off Hamas weapons-makers.
What happened next is disputed, but video footage from the Turkish lead vessel, Mavi Marmara, showed masked Navy Seals rappelling from helicopters on to the deck and into a sea of angry activists, some armed with knives and batons. A pistol was snatched from at least one commando and an Israeli commander gave an order to fire. The Israeli military stood by its account yesterday that the activists fired first.
Images after the shootout showed the dead and wounded lying on decks as panicked activists scurried around the darkened decks carrying blood-drenched stretchers. One British man was reported to have been injured.
U.N. SECURITY COUNCIL MEETS ON ISRAELI RAID
May 31, 2010 -- 0823 PDT
Israel faced condemnation and questions Monday at an emergency U.N. Security Council meeting called by Turkey on the Israeli military's storming of a six-ship flotilla of pro-Palestinian activists headed to Gaza with aid supplies.
At least nine activists died in clashes that injured seven Israeli soldiers. Israel contends the flotilla intended to break its blockade of Gaza, while Palestinian leaders and allies said Israel launched an unprovoked military assault on civilians.
"No state is above the law," Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said at the start of the meeting, adding that "Israel must be held accountable for its crimes."
Davutoglu called the Israeli assault "piracy" and "murder conducted by a state." Turkey helped arrange the flotilla bringing relief supplies such as medicines and building materials.
Before the meeting, the Palestinian U.N. Ambassador, Riyad Mansour, called for the Security Council to launch an independent investigation of the incident.
Mark Lyall Grant, the British U.N. ambassador, said Israel should end its blockade of Gaza and take all steps necessary for a full investigation of flotilla incident.
"There is an unambiguous need for Israel to act with restraint and in line with its international obligations," Grant said. "Given the number of casualties in this incident, Israel now bears a responsibility to provide a full account of what occurred, what efforts were made to minimize the loss of life, and why the death toll was so high. It will be particularly important to establish especially whether enough was done to prevent deaths and unnecessary injuries."
Grant called the blockade of Gaza "unacceptable and counter-productive."
However, the U.S. deputy permanent representative to the United Nations, Alejandro Wolff, said the relief aid being transported to Gaza should have gone by accepted international mechanisms set up because of the Israeli blockade.
"These non-provocative and non-confrontational mechanisms should be the ones used for the benefit of all those in Gaza," Wolff said. "Direct delivery by sea is neither appropriate nor responsible, and certainly not effective, under the circumstances."
Wolff echoed Grant's call for renewed negotiations on a comprehensive peace agreement to resolve the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
Speaking last, Israel's deputy permanent U.N. representative, Daniel Carmon, challenged the media portrayal of the flotilla as a humanitarian mission, saying it was instead a mission to breaking Israel's blockade of Gaza.
"If indeed it were a humanitarian mission, it would have accepted, weeks ago, during the planning stages, the offer by the Israeli authorities to transfer the aid, through to the port of Ashdod, to Gaza through the existing overland crossing, in accordance with established procedures," Carmon said.
Carmon said Palestinian activists included members of the Turkish Foundation for Human Rights and Freedom and Humanitarian Relief, known by its Turkish acronym IHH, which he said had links to terrorist organizations al Qaeda and Hamas.
"They are not peace activists; they are not messengers of good will," Carmon said. "They cynically use a humanitarian platform to send a message of hate and to implement violence."
Carmon called Israel's maritime blockade a "a legitimate and recognized measure" as part of an armed conflict at sea.
"When it became clear that the protest flotilla intended to violate the blockage, despite the repeated warnings, Israeli Naval personnel boarded the vessels and redirected them to Ashdod," Carmon said. "Unfortunately, the soldiers boarding one of the ships, were violently attacked with life threatening means; live ammunition, knives, clubs, deck furniture and others types of weaponry.. ... The intention was clear, to lynch the Israeli soldiers, and I hope the media will document this."
He added: "Without any doubt, the soldiers acted in self-defense."
"The results of last night's events are tragic and unfortunate, and Israel deeply regrets any lose of innocent lives," he said. "But it cannot compromise its security."
SECURITY COUNCIL DEBATES CRITICISM OF ISRAELI RAID
by Neil MacFarquhar
New York Times
May 31, 2010 -- 2150 PDT
UNITED NATIONS -- Israel faced heavy criticism in an emergency session of the United Nations Security Council on Monday in response to its deadly attack on an aid flotilla trying to breach the Gaza blockade, but attempts to issue a formal statement stalled after the United States rejected the strong condemnation sought by Turkey.
Turkey proposed a statement that would condemn Israel for violating international law, demand a United Nations investigation and demand that Israel prosecute those responsible for the raid and pay compensation to the victims. It also called for the end of the blockade.
The Obama administration refused to endorse a statement that singled out Israel, and proposed a broader condemnation of the violence that would include the assault of the Israeli commandos as they landed on the deck of the ship.
Late Monday night, the two countries were trying to work out their differences on the wording, including whether to specify that the investigation should be conducted by outsiders, diplomats said.
While condemnation of Israel in the Security Council is not uncommon, the criticism at the emergency session called by Turkey and Lebanon was notable for both its vehemence and for the broad array of countries demanding an independent investigation into the decision to fire on civilians in what they described as a humanitarian mission.
Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu of Turkey, whose country’s once close relations with Israel have deteriorated markedly since Israel’s invasion of Gaza in 2008, called the attack “tantamount to banditry and piracy; it is murder conducted by a state.”
Noting that the ships were carrying items such as a playground, cancer medicine, and milk powder, he said that given the history of the Jews the Israelis should be more conscious than others of “the dangers and inhumanity of ghettoes as the one we currently witness in occupied Gaza.”
Gerard Araud, the French ambassador, said the death toll -- nine activists in the flotilla were killed in the raid -- indicated “there was disproportionate use of force and a level of violence which nothing justifies and which we condemn.” Nawaf Salam, the Lebanese ambassador, said even the laws of war require the delivery of humanitarian aid.
Several envoys said Israel was in violation of international law, not least because Security Council resolution 1860 passed in the midst of the Gaza war in January 2009 had called for ending the blockade and opening unfettered access to humanitarian assistance throughout the strip. The diplomats also demanded immediate access to their citizens, with some 32 different nationalities among the estimated 600 to 700 people on the flotilla. Israel seized all six ships and forced them into port.
The United States, which habitually defends Israel in the council, said that the attempt to run the blockade by sea was ill advised. “Direct delivery by sea is neither appropriate nor responsible, and certainly not effective, under the circumstances,” said Alejandro Wolff, the deputy permanent representative of the United States. But he also described the situation in Gaza as “unsustainable” and called on Israel to undertake a credible investigation. Daniel Carmon, the deputy Israeli ambassador, scoffed at the idea that the ships were a humanitarian convoy -- Israel had offered to bring the goods into Gaza over land -- and said Israeli commandos acted in self-defense after being attacked with “life threatening means; live ammunition, knives, clubs, deck furniture, and others types of weaponry.”
He described the organizers as linked to a variety of Islamic terrorist organizations, which the Turkish foreign minister called a lie.
The International Crisis Group, a nonprofit organization which seeks to end conflicts, issued a statement condemning the attack but noted that it was an outcome of the failed policy of many countries, not just Israel, in trying to isolate the Hamas government which controls the Gaza strip and thus turn the population against it.
GAZA FLOTILLA ATTACK: WORLD UNITES IN CONDEMNATION OF ISRAEL'S ACTIONS
By Ian Traynor and Dorian Jones
** Key strategic relationship with Turkey damaged and Netanyahu visit to White House cancelled **
June 1, 2010 -- [May 31, 2100 PDT]
Israel's calculated gamble in sending commandos to raid the Mediterranean flotilla looked likely last night to exact a high price, leaving it increasingly isolated internationally and diplomatically and losing the vital public relations war in the Middle East.
The first and biggest casualty of what appeared to many as a rash act of night time derring-do was Israel's relationship with what used to be its key strategic, regional and Muslim ally, Turkey.
Anger erupted on the streets of Istanbul and Ankara, with Israeli flags burned and the Netanyahu government advising Israelis to stay away from Turkey. Thousands took to the streets and marched on the Israeli consulate.
Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, described the Israeli raid as "an act of inhumane state terrorism," while the foreign ministry spoke of "an act of piracy" and of "irreparable damage" to relations between Ankara and Tel Aviv.
Three of the six ships flew the Turkish flag, the convoy was organised by a Turkish charity, and several hundred of those on board the ships were Turks. "We had a very good relationship with Israel, but we have had all kind of difficulties in the past," said a senior diplomat in Ankara, Selim Yenel. "This tops them all."
Protesters scaled the high fences protecting the Israeli consulate in Istanbul, only to be repelled by security forces.
"I cried all night. What Israel did was murder and terrorism," said Mehmet Tas, a computer software student. "Turkey and Europe should unite and attack Israel."
The fury on the streets was mirrored by high-level rage. Ankara recalled its ambassador from Israel. Erdogan rushed home from a trip to Latin America to deal with the fallout. Observers predicted a possible breach in diplomatic relations.
"Israel has targeted innocent civilians," said the foreign ministry in Ankara. "It has shown yet again that it does not care about human lives or peace initiatives."
Noting that the dawn raid occurred in international waters, Ankara hinted at demanding legal redress.
The Turks convened an emergency meeting of generals and security ministers and called off military exercises with Israel, as did Greece.
The United Nations security council was expected to meet last night in New York over the incident.
"I heard the ships were in international water. That is very bad," said Ban Ki-moon, the U.N. secretary-general.
The Obama administration, while regretting the death toll, reserved judgment on apportioning blame.
"The United States is currently working to understand the circumstances surrounding this tragedy," said White House spokesman William Burton.
The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, cancelled plans to visit Obama at the White House today.
Amid a flurry of diplomatic activity, Israeli ambassadors were summoned in Stockholm, Madrid, and Athens, while Spain, holding the six-month rotating presidency of the European Union, called a session of the E.U.'s political and security committee.
Foreign governments deplored the loss of life and voiced outrage at the Israeli conduct. But amid a propaganda war between the Israeli government press machine and pro-Palestinian lobbies over who started the fight and whether any of the activists on board were armed, they were also wary of going further than verbal condemnation.
The common response in Europe was to condemn what was seen as Israel's disproportionate use of force. Even Germany, generally reluctant to criticize Israel because of the Holocaust, voiced horror at what Palestinian leaders dubbed a massacre.
"The German government is shocked by events in the international waters by Gaza," said a German government spokesman, adding that Israeli actions should observe the fundamental principle of proportionality. "A first glance suggests this basic principle was not adhered to."
Catherine Ashton, the E.U.'s foreign and security policy chief, said: "I have spoken to Israel's foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman to express our deepest concern about the tragedy that has happened. I said there should be an immediate inquiry by Israel into the circumstances."
Her demand for an Israeli inquiry was echoed by European governments, but at odds with several other calls for an independent international investigation.
Guido Westerwelle, the German foreign minister, told Liberman that any investigation should be "comprehensive, transparent, and neutral".
While Israel generally prevents foreign politicians entering the Gaza Strip, Ashton was allowed in during her first trip to the Middle East in March. She called yesterday for a partial lifting of the blockade maintained by Israel and Egypt.
"I have also taken the opportunity to point out the importance of opening the crossings for humanitarian aid to go through, to ensure that ordinary people have a better existence than that which I saw."
William Hague, the foreign secretary, said that the three-year Israeli siege of Gaza should be relaxed. "I call on the government of Israel to open the crossings to allow unfettered access for aid to Gaza, and address the serious concerns about the deterioration in the humanitarian and economic situation and about the effect on a generation of young Palestinians."
The Russian government meanwhile expressed its deep anxiety over the incident. It described the assault by Israeli commandos as a gross violation of international law and called for a thorough investigation.
"Use of weapons against civilians and detaining ships in the open sea without any legal reason constitute obvious and gross violations of generally accepted legal standards," Russia's foreign ministry said in a statement. It called for the "earliest possible lifting of the Israeli blockade of Gaza."
Tony Blair, envoy in the Middle East for the U.N., U.S., E.U., and Russia quartet, said: "We need a different and better way of helping the people of Gaza and avoiding the hardship and tragedy that is inherent in the present situation."
All the evidence suggests that Israel is calculating that it can brazen out the chorus of criticism and limit the substantive damage to its relations with Turkey.