Israel drops plans to prosecute flotilla activists
Israel today dropped plans to prosecute dozens of pro-Palestinian activists involved in the Gaza blockade incident, opting instead to deport them all immediately.
Authorities acted to limit the diplomatic damage as Israel faced increasingly severe international condemnation for Monday's raid that ended when Israeli commandos killed nine activists.
The outcry included accusations of war crimes and a decision by Nicaragua to break diplomatic relations with Israel over the raid.
Israeli officials said the decision not to prosecute any of the activists - despite reported suspicions that they were sent to attack Israeli forces on the ship - was primarily an attempt to control the damage to Israel's relations with Turkey, an unofficial sponsor of the flotilla.
Israel is anxious to patch up ties with Ankara because it is the Jewish state's most important Muslim ally. At least four of the nine killed were Turkish and the ship Israel attacked was Turkish. Israel ordered families of its diplomats out of that country a day after Ankara branded the raid a "massacre".
The Islamic charity group which organised the aid flotilla said its workers and relatives are trying identify nine bodies at an Istanbul morgue.
Turkish planes brought back hundreds of activists who returned to a heroes' welcome with thousands of supporters, waving Palestinian and Turkish flags and chanting "God is Great!"
The IHH charity says they are having difficulty identifying five of the bodies. Four of them have been officially confirmed to be Turks.
Deputy prime minister Bulent Arinc welcomed them at the airport after Turkey pressured Israel to release the detainees, most of whom are Turkish. Others were from Arab countries, Europe and the US.
Turkish lawmakers continued to express their outrage yesterday, calling on their government to review its political, military and economic ties with Israel. The lawmakers also said Israel must formally apologise for the raid, compensate the victims and bring those responsible to justice.
The deportees included about 50 of the nearly 700 activists on the ships who Israel said were apparently linked to the world jihad movement and possibly al Qaida. Israel accused the suspects of attacking Israeli troops dropping on to one of the ships and beating them with iron rods, clubs and knives.
Originally, Israel planned on detaining them in Israel while police looked into possible charges, but Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein said in a statement that "keeping them here would do more damage to the country's vital interests than good".
Israeli cabinet minister Isaac Herzog said the expulsions were an attempt to dampen criticism of Israel.
"We are trying to take full control of this crisis management and move forward," Mr Herzog said, while indicating that Israel would reject calls from the UN and others for an independent inquiry. "We are the last nation (that) you can say doesn't check itself," he said.
Mr Herzog defended Israel's blockade of Gaza, saying weapons Hamas could receive by sea could be used "against Israel and the region".
International Middle East envoy Tony Blair called on Israel to ease the blockade and let more supplies in. He called the blockade "counterproductive", but said it would be hard to lift because of Israel's objections.
In a bizarre twist, Israel unloaded supplies from the six boats commandeered during the raid and sent some of the goods toward Gaza, only to see the blockaded territory's Hamas rulers refuse to accept them.
Israeli security officials said they had loaded 20 trucks with equipment that was on the ships, including wheelchairs, toys, clothes and medicine. They said contrary to earlier claims, there was no cement on board.
The Hamas minister of social affairs, Ahmad al-Kurd, accused Israel of keeping batteries for the wheelchairs and with-holding tons of cement carried by the flotilla. He said the government would not accept the aid until Israel frees everything confiscated from the ships, but later said the aid would be picked up when all detainees were released.