U.S. urged Israel to use caution and restraint with aid boats heading to Gaza

Israeli naval commandos seized an aid flotilla bound for the Gaza Strip on May 31, killing at least nine and wounding dozens, and sparking protests and condemnations around the world.
By Scott Wilson and Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Obama administration said Wednesday that it had warned Israel's government repeatedly to use "caution and restraint" with half a dozen aid boats bound for the Gaza Strip before Israeli commandos raided the flotilla this week in an operation that killed nine people.

"We communicated with Israel through multiple channels many times regarding the flotilla," P.J. Crowley, a State Department spokesman, said in a statement issued in response to a question from The Washington Post. "We emphasized caution and restraint given the anticipated presence of civilians, including American citizens."

The acknowledgment shed new light on the administration's contact with the Israeli government before the Monday morning raid, which has inflamed international opinion against Israel and complicated President Obama's efforts to improve U.S. relations with the Islamic world. White House officials said Wednesday that there is a growing consensus within the administration that U.S. and Israeli policy toward Gaza must change, even as Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu flatly rejected calls for his country to lift its blockade of the Palestinian territory.

Netanyahu, addressing his nation Wednesday for the first time since the raid, angrily defended Israel from mounting international criticism over its use of force against the flotilla, which was carrying construction materials, medicine, school paper and other aid to Gaza when Israeli commandos set upon it in international waters.

Netanyahu called the criticism "hypocrisy" and described Gaza, where 1.5 million people live in a narrow slice of dunes and refugee camps between southern Israel and the sea, as "a terror state funded by the Iranians."

"The same countries that are criticizing us today should know that they will be targeted tomorrow," he said, just a day after Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called Israel's policy toward Gaza "unsustainable." "It's for this and for many other reasons we have a right to inspect cargo heading into Gaza,'' Netanyahu added.

The flotilla was organized by the Free Gaza Movement and a Turkish charity that Israeli officials say has connections to radical groups.

In an interview with Charlie Rose broadcast Wednesday night, Vice President Biden agreed that Israel had a right to inspect the cargo. "You can argue whether Israel should have dropped people onto that ship or not . . . but the truth of the matter is, Israel has a right to know -- they're at war with Hamas -- has a right to know whether or not arms are being smuggled in," he said.

At the same time, Biden acknowledged that the administration is trying to sway the Israeli government on the issue of Gaza, which has been under some form of an Israeli blockade for five years.

"We have put as much pressure and as much cajoling on Israel as we can to allow them to get building materials" and other designated humanitarian aid into Gaza, he said.

Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to Washington, said that although lifting the blockade is out of the question, Israel shares the administration's goal of improving civilian life in the Gaza Strip. "We are open to the discussion of how best to reconcile the civilian needs of the people of Gaza with Israel's very real security needs," he said in an interview.

The Israeli raid on the flotilla has focused international attention on Israel's closure policy and the mixed results it has achieved.

Israel withdrew its soldiers and settlements from Gaza in 2005 after a nearly four-decade presence in the strip. But it has maintained strict control over the coast and crossing points for goods arriving from Israel, which has come under frequent attack over the years from rockets fired by the Islamist movement Hamas and other armed groups at war with the Jewish state.

In 2007, after Hamas's violent takeover of the strip, Israel effectively closed it to all but a limited amount of humanitarian aid. The goal was to turn the public against Hamas, and prevent arms-making materials from entering. Israel has also linked lifting the blockade -- which includes a ban on nearly all exports from Gaza -- to the release of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier Hamas captured in Israel in 2006.

But Israel has let several aid flotillas land at Gaza over the past two years, missions designed primarily to draw attention to the blockade. Before Monday's most ambitious attempt to run the blockade, Israel had turned back two previous flotillas and detained some participants for more than a week.

Israel said Wednesday that it had completed the deportation of the more than 700 activists detained after the raid. Most of them were flown to Turkey, which was Israel's chief Muslim ally in the region before the raid but has since withdrawn its ambassador.

The administration's acknowledgment that it warned Israel against using excessive force comes as White House officials have been meeting with Israeli diplomats and security officials to discuss how the blockade might be altered to allow more aid to enter Gaza without risking Israeli security.

White House officials said Obama has had several phone calls with Netanyahu since the incident, and national security adviser James L. Jones met with his Israeli counterpart for several hours this week.

A White House official briefed on those meetings said there is "a general sense in the administration that it's time to change our Gaza policy," although he would not elaborate on how the administration might change the way it engages an area controlled by a U.S.-designated terrorist organization.

The official said meetings have been held to explore "alternative approaches to dealing with ships who try to run the blockade, and to ensure the humanitarian aid reaches people in Gaza." The official added that "our militaries are in touch on this."

David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said that discussion should focus on trimming the Israeli bans on many basic items for fear that they could be used for nefarious purposes. "It needs to be streamlined, so that everything is permitted unless it is forbidden, rather than everything is forbidden unless it is permitted," he said. "You have got to use common sense so that you just deny things that can be used for weapons."

Correspondent Janine Zacharia in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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