Nations decry Israel's blockade of Gaza

By Janine Zacharia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, June 2, 2010; A01

JERUSALEM -- Israel's botched and deadly commando raid on an aid flotilla has set off widespread international criticism of the Gaza blockade, with popular opinion in many countries swinging heavily against Israel and even the United States urging its ally to find new ways to allow aid shipments to reach the Palestinians.

The United States continued to tread carefully in public on Tuesday -- expressing regret about the deaths but not condemning Israel's actions. Behind the scenes, administration officials pressed Israel to make sure the incident is not repeated, especially with a new aid ship heading for the besieged coastal strip within days.

Israeli Ambassador Michael B. Oren and national security adviser Uzi Arad spent four hours in meetings Tuesday at the White House, including a session with James L. Jones, President Obama's national security adviser. The meetings focused on how to contain the immediate diplomatic fallout from the raid, which has endangered the push for sanctions against Iran and peace efforts in the Middle East.

The discussions also explored ways for future humanitarian deliveries to reach Gaza without jeopardizing Israel's security, a White House official said. Behind the White House's message was a sense within the administration that Israel's approach toward upholding its blockade is unworkable over the long term, and the focus now is on preventing another deadly raid at sea.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told Defense Minster Ehud Barak during a phone conversation that "we should be extremely cautious in both what we say and what we do in coming days," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said.

The Obama administration faces a difficult balancing act as it tries to patch up relations with Israel while not letting Arab anger over the raid, which left nine activists dead, undercut its outreach to the Muslim world.

While Israeli officials closed ranks in fending off international criticism, the internal debate in Israel focused on why the government and the military had permitted the operation to turn into a public relations fiasco that has tarnished Israeli relations with onetime allies, especially Turkey. Israeli officials were adamant that their policy toward Gaza will not change.

Israeli military Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, while visiting navy commandos who were wounded during clashes aboard the 600-passenger Mavi Marmara ship early Monday, said everything would be studied, "from the commander of the navy to the last of the soldiers, in order to learn for the future."

The future may come as soon as later this week when the MV Rachel Corrie, the seventh ship in the flotilla, will attempt to reach Gaza. The ship is named for an American activist killed in Gaza in 2003 while protesting Israeli home demolitions.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, upon returning home Tuesday after canceling a trip to Washington, convened his security advisers for a four-hour review that covered Monday's raid, the diplomatic fallout from the incident and how to contend with other attempts to breach the blockade. An Israeli official said no change has been made to Israel's policy to stop ships from reaching Gaza, which Israeli forces have kept under a maritime blockade since the Islamist Hamas movement took control of the strip in 2007.

Israeli commandos seized five ships in an aid flotilla early Monday but fought with protesters aboard a sixth. Israeli officials say the demonstrators attacked the commandos with axes and metal rods, while flotilla organizers say the troops used excessive force on unarmed civilians.

Even as Israeli officials defended their right to use force to uphold the blockade, Israeli commentators decried the raid, and some called for Barak to resign. Others blamed the military. A former senior Israeli military official said the navy tried "to be like Rambo" and "gave this kind of illusion to the political level that they can carry it out very easily without complications. It's the navy chief who is responsible."

While Israeli officials said soldiers had not expected violent resistance, officials had alleged for days that the activists aboard the large Turkish ship were part of a radical group with links to militant organizations.

Hundreds of activists on Tuesday remained in an Israeli prison south of the city of Beersheba. Israel's security cabinet decided late Tuesday to expel all of the remaining detainees within 48 hours, but it was not immediately clear whether activists accused of ambushing the soldiers would be held for prosecution.

The International Committee of the Red Cross, which visited some of the activists, released a statement Tuesday raising "serious questions concerning the methods and means used by the Israel Defense Forces to prevent the flotilla from proceeding to Gaza." Israel's actions have been condemned by governments worldwide, and the raid spawned demonstrations in Europe, the Middle East and South Asia.

Central to the criticism of Israel were questions about the legality of its actions. The raid took place on a ship that was apparently unarmed, in international waters. But Allen Weiner, a former State Department lawyer and legal counsel at the U.S. Embassy at The Hague, said Israel was technically operating legally.

"Israel claims to be in a state of armed conflict with a non-state group, with Hamas in Gaza. Under the laws of war, a blockage is legal," said Weiner, who teaches at Stanford Law School. "That includes operating on the high seas. You don't have to wait until you are on territorial waters."

The U.N. Security Council condemned "those acts which resulted in" the deaths of nine civilians and called for a "prompt, impartial, credible and transparent" investigation of why and how the Israeli military acted to stop the ships.

Though officially the Obama administration insisted that Israel was "best positioned" to conduct an investigation, a senior administration official acknowledged that an Israeli probe will not be seen as legitimate, so "we are pushing hard for an international role."

As anger spread throughout the Arab world, Egypt, in a symbolic gesture, partly opened the Rafah crossing with Gaza. Israel and Egypt have coordinated in keeping their crossings with Gaza closed for all but humanitarian purposes in an attempt to isolate Hamas leaders. Because of the Egyptian and Israeli blockades, most commercial goods sold in Gaza are smuggled from Egypt through tunnels.

Special correspondent Samuel Sockol in Jerusalem and staff writers Glenn Kessler and Scott Wilson in Washington and Colum Lynch in New York contributed to this report.

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