JERUSALEM/ANKARA (Reuters) - Israel, facing mounting international outrage at its raid on an aid convoy sailing to Gaza, said on Tuesday that it would expel all activists seized on the ships and dropped threats to prosecute some of them.
Israel had said it would deport 682 activists from over 35 countries, seized during the assault in which nine activists were killed on a Turkish vessel, but the police minister had said some might be prosecuted for assaulting Israeli marines.
Amid widespread anger at the Israeli action, the U.N. Security Council called for an impartial investigation of the deaths, and the Turkish prime minister demanded the immediate lifting of Israel’s “inhumane” blockade of the Gaza Strip.
A spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said later that all activists “would be deported immediately,” and Israeli officials said they hoped to complete the operation in 48 hours.
The 700 activists detained when Israeli marines halted the six-ship convoy heading for the blockaded Palestinian enclave included Turks, Arabs, Americans, Asians and Europeans, among them two politicians and Swedish author Henning Mankell.
In Turkey, a visibly angry Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan told parliamentary deputies: “Israel’s behaviour should definitely, definitely be punished.”
“The time has come for the international community to say ‘enough’,” said Erdogan, who demanded the immediate lifting of “the inhumane embargo on Gaza.”
Erdogan’s Islamist views and overtures to Iran and Israeli enemies are blamed by many in Israel for souring ties between the Jewish state and Turkey, once its closest Muslim ally.
The bloodshed also put Netanyahu’s tense ties with U.S. President Barack Obama under further strain. Netanyahu cancelled talks with Obama to fly home from Canada to handle the crisis.
Obama, who has revived Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations through U.S.-mediated indirect talks, said he wanted the full facts soon.
In a telephone call with Erdogan, Obama expressed his condolences for those killed in the raid, four of them Turks, and reiterated U.S. support for an impartial investigation “of the facts surrounding this tragedy,” the White House said.
He said it was important to find “better ways to provide humanitarian assistance to the people of Gaza without undermining Israel’s security,” the White House statement added.
“I think the situation from our perspective is very difficult and requires careful, thoughtful responses from all concerned,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters in Washington.
The United Nations called for an impartial investigation of the deaths of the nine people, four of them Turks.
The Israeli military said the deaths occurred when commandos stormed the Mavi Marmara, the cruise ship on which most of the violence occurred, from helicopters and dinghies and opened fire in what Netanyahu said was self-defence.
The U.N. Security Council statement drew a sharp response from Israel, which said its foreign minister complained in a telephone call with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that it was condemned unfairly for “defensive actions.”
Cairo announced the opening of its Rafah border crossing with Gaza, which is ruled by the Islamist group Hamas, an offshoot of Egypt’s main opposition.
Hamas requested the opening. Cairo, coordinating with Israel, has rarely opened the border since Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007.
While Israel grappled with world criticism, its navy said it was ready to intercept another aid vessel that organisers of the flotilla planned to send to the Gaza Strip next week.
Netanyahu convened his security cabinet to debate what Israeli critics called a botched raid, and ministers said the naval blockade of 1.5 million Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip would continue, despite condemnation from allies.
“The opening of a sea route to Gaza would pose a tremendous risk to the security of our citizens. Therefore we continue a policy of a naval blockade,” Netanyahu told his ministers.
Unanswered questions included how far Israel could maintain its economic embargo on Gaza and how it misjudged the situation and dropped marines onto a Turkish ship where they felt they had to open fire to save their lives.
As pictures emerged of a handful of Israeli marines being beaten and clubbed by dozens of activists, it was clear there would be anger in Israel over the mishandled raid.
Activists’ accounts began to emerge as some were deported.
Huseyin Tokalak, captain of one seized ship, told a news conference in Istanbul an Israeli warship had threatened to sink his vessel before commandos boarded and trained their guns on him and his crew.
“They pointed two guns to the head of each of us,” Tokalak said. “They were really interesting guns, like the ones you see in the movies.”
The U.N. Security Council held more than 10 hours of closed-door talks on the Israeli raid before calling for “a prompt, impartial, credible and transparent investigation conforming to international standards.”
It also condemned “those acts which resulted in the loss of ... civilians and many wounded.”
The International Committee of the Red Cross strongly deplored the deaths and injuries resulting from Israel’s operation saying “the high number of casualties raises serious questions concerning the methods and means used” in the raid.
Israeli commandos involved in the attack pointed to a failure of intelligence. “We did not expect such resistance from the group’s activists as we were talking about a humanitarian aid group,” the boarding party commander told Army Radio.
“The outcome was different to what we thought, but I must say that this was mainly because of the inappropriate behaviour of the adversary we encountered.”
Additional reporting by Allyn Fisher-Ilan in Jerusalem, Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza and Yusri Mohamed in Port Said, editing by Tim Pearce