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Israel to Deport Gaza Aid Activists After Taking Over Ship

Israel will expel today all 19 passengers and crew from an aid ship intercepted this weekend while trying to breach the country’s blockade of the Gaza Strip, days after a similar attempt to reach the coastal area left nine activists dead.

“They should all be gone by tonight,” said Sabine Haddad, an Interior Ministry spokeswoman. The deportees include five people from Ireland, one from Britain and six from the Philippines who will be put on flights, Haddad said. Six Malaysians and one Cuban are being sent to Jordan, she said.

The peaceful seizure yesterday capped a week of heightened tensions after the deaths of nine Turks during the boarding of a Gaza-bound aid ship in international waters on May 31. The European Union, Russia and Turkey have called on Israel to end its blockade of Gaza. Israel says the restrictions are needed to ensure weapons don’t enter the Hamas-controlled coastal enclave.

“We’re open to any suggestions,” Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to the U.S., said in an interview with Bloomberg Television’s “Political Capital with Al Hunt,” airing this weekend. “We, too, are not happy with the status quo.”

Turkey said the United Nations plans to set up a five-person commission to investigate the deaths of the Turks.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan discussed the commission yesterday in a telephone conversation with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, Turkey’s Anatolia state news agency reported. The commission will have members from Turkey and Israel as well as others appointed by the UN and will be headed by former New Zealand Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer according to Anatolia, which didn’t say how it got the information.

Easing Restrictions

The Israeli government is now considering easing restrictions on the flow of aid into Gaza, Israel’s Channel Two television reported.

The Free Gaza movement, which organized the flotilla in the May 31 confrontation and the MV Rachel Corrie -- named after an American activist killed by an Israeli bulldozer while protesting home demolitions in the Gaza Strip in 2003 -- rejected Israel’s proposal that it off-load its cargo at Ashdod port for transport to Gaza after security checks.

The group is planning another flotilla in two months.

“We are getting a huge amount of donations, about 2,000 euros a day,” said spokeswoman Audrey Bomse. “We will have no problem getting ships.”

Cement, Paper, Wheelchairs

The MV Rachel Corrie’s passengers included Mairead Corrigan Maguire, an Irish Nobel Peace laureate, Denis Halliday, former United Nations assistant secretary general from Ireland, and Mohd Nizar bin Zakaria, a member of the Malaysian Parliament. Its cargo included cement, tons of paper and wheelchairs, Eliza Ernshire, a spokeswoman for the Free Gaza Movement said.

U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague welcomed the fact that the interception “was resolved peacefully.” Britain wants a “full, credible, impartial and independent investigation” of the events involving the flotilla that includes international participation, he said in an e-mailed statement.

Top Israeli ministers met June 3 to review the blockade policy and explore ways of changing its implementation after last week’s deadly naval raid, an Israeli official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak to the press on the matter. One possibility is the use of international monitors at Ashdod, Channel Two news said without citing anyone.

Numerous Warnings

Israel says it attempted to prevent clashes with the aid flotilla last week by issuing numerous warnings beforehand to change course for Ashdod and unload there.

Israel has said that in the confrontation its soldiers were attacked with knives and clubs after boarding the Mavi Marmara, one of the six vessels in the flotilla, and seven were wounded, including by gunfire after volunteers aboard the ship managed to grab Israeli firearms. Activists have said they threw the firearms into the sea. There was no violence on the other five ships.

A Turkish autopsy found that several of those killed were shot multiple times and from the back at close range, the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper reported yesterday, citing Yalcin Buyuk, vice chairman of the council of forensic medicine.

Criticism within Israel of the flotilla operation has focused largely on the execution of the raid and not the blockade.

Israeli Opinion

A survey of Israeli Jews published in the Maariv daily on June 2 showed 94.8 percent agreeing that it was necessary to stop the boats, with 62.7 percent saying it should have been handled in a different manner. Only 8.1 percent thought Netanyahu should resign. The newspaper didn’t say how many people were surveyed or give a margin of error.

Israel has faced global criticism over the raid and calls for an international investigation. The U.S. has declined to specifically criticize Israeli actions. It backed a United Nations Security Council resolution on June 1 that condemned the violence that led to the deaths of the aid activists, and called for an impartial inquiry.

Turkey, which along with South Africa withdrew its ambassador from Israel over the incident, says an Israeli investigation wouldn’t meet that criteria.

Blockade Since 2007

Israel has been blockading Gaza since Hamas ousted forces loyal to President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah group and seized full control in 2007 after winning Palestinian parliamentary elections the previous year. Hamas is considered a terrorist organization by Israel, the U.S. and the European Union.

Israel launched an operation in the Gaza Strip in December 2008 that it said was meant to stop the firing of rockets into its territory. More than 1,000 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed in the conflict. Since the end of the three-week operation, some 330 rockets have been fired from Gaza into Israel, killing one foreign worker last March, the Israeli army said.

Israel says its blockade of Gaza is legal because it is in “a state of armed conflict” with Hamas. Some countries, such as Turkey, dispute the legality of the blockade.

Hamas’s charter calls for the destruction of the Jewish state. Hamas leaders say they will renounce violence when Israel withdraws from territory occupied in 1967 and allows Palestinians to return to areas in Israel from which they fled in 1948.

Palestinians say the restrictions on food imports and construction materials have created a humanitarian crisis. Israel says it restricts imports because building materials and even some foods can be used to build rockets, bunkers or bombs.

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