JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel on Wednesday began deporting the bulk of nearly 700 international activists detained during its deadly raid on an aid flotilla bound for Palestinians in the blockaded, Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.
The raid that ended with Israeli soldiers killing nine activists has strained diplomatic ties, sending Israeli relations with Turkey, in particular, to a new low. 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 Turkey branded the raid a “massacre.”
Egypt eased its blockade of Gaza after the raid and at the newly opened crossing in the border town of Rafah, about 300 Palestinians entered through Gaza’s main gateway to the outside world. A smaller number entered Gaza from Egypt and humanitarian aid also came in including blankets, tents and 13 power generators donated by Russia and Oman.
Magdi al-Titer, a 31-year-old Palestinian among those crossing into Egypt, said he lost his right leg during Israel’s brief war with Gaza that ended in January 2009.
“I have come with a medical report to get fitted with an artificial leg in Egypt,” he said.
Israel has come under harsh international condemnation after naval commandos stormed the flotilla in international waters on Monday, setting off the deadly clashes. Israel says its soldiers opened fire only after being attacked by angry activists, who said they were trying to breach the blockade of Gaza to bring in aid.
Gaza has been under an Israeli and Egyptian blockade since 2007. Egypt’s opening of the border was believed to be temporary, although the government did not say how long it would last.
A corrections official said Israel is aiming to deport all the foreign activists by the end of the day. But there is a possibility some could be held in custody on suspicion of violence against Israeli troops.
Some 400 activists, most of them Turkish citizens, were bused to Israel’s international airport for flights home by midday Wednesday.
Corrections department spokesman Yaron Zamir said the Turkish activists would board planes Turkey had sent to pick them up. Greece also had an aircraft on standby there to pick up its activists.
An additional 124 activists from a dozen Muslim nations without diplomatic relations with Israel were deported to Jordan before sunrise. About 100 foreigners remained in a prison in southern Israel by midday, Zamir said.
Several of the activists deported to Jordan told The Associated Press that they were deprived of food, water, sleep and access to toilets in Israeli detention.
“The Israelis roughed up and humiliated all of us — women, men and children,” said Kuwaiti lawmaker Walid al-Tabtabai, who was on board one of the ships with other activists from Muslim countries.
“They were brutal and arrogant, but our message reached every corner of the world that the blockade on Gaza is unfair and should be lifted immediately,” he added. The lawmaker claimed there “was not a single weapon with the passengers aboard all the ships.”
Israel claimed some of the passengers attacked commandos with knives, iron rods, sticks and with two pistols wrested from soldiers.
Video released by the Israeli military showed commandos attacked by angry activists with metal rods and firebombs during the raid. One soldier was thrown off one deck onto another below, and Israeli authorities said its troops were attacked by knives, clubs and live fire from the two pistols wrested from soldiers.
Israeli defense officials have also said, without providing proof, that night vision goggles, gas masks, flak jackets and thousands of dollars were found on the ship, suggesting the possibility that some mercenaries were on board.
Israeli media reported Wednesday that the foreign ministry ordered the families of its diplomats in Turkey to leave that country because of the uproar there over the raid. The diplomatic mission itself would remain in Turkey, said Israel Radio and other stations and newspapers. The ministry would neither confirm nor deny the reports.
The fallout also expanded far from the region’s borders. Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said Nicaragua is suspending — though not severing — diplomatic ties with Israel over the raid.
While many Israelis were critical of the way the raid was executed, the overwhelming reaction backed the soldiers’ response and supported the Gaza blockade. Israelis have little empathy for the plight of Palestinians in Gaza because militants used the territory to send thousands of rockets and mortars crashing into Israel for years.
The flotilla was meant to draw attention to the Israeli and Egyptian blockade of Gaza, imposed after Hamas militants violently seized power in June 2007. Israel says the blockade is needed to prevent Hamas, which has fired thousands of rockets into the Jewish state, from building up its arsenal. Critics say the closure has failed to hurt Hamas but has damaged Gaza’s already weak economy.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton supported a U.N. Security Council statement that condemned the “acts” that cost the lives of the pro-Palestinian activists off the Gaza coast. But U.S. officials did not say whether they blamed Israel or the activists for the bloodshed.
Israel has promised to halt a new attempt by pro-Palestinian groups to sail two more ships to Gaza’s shores within the next few days.
Despite the widespread outcry over the violent sea raid, the Palestinians were resuming indirect peace talks with Israel later Wednesday, through U.S. envoy George Mitchell. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was to meet Mitchell at his headquarters in the West Bank town of Ramallah.