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Israel Deports Gaza Flotilla Activists, Defends Raid

June 2, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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JIM LEHRER: International law and politics on day three of the Gaza story.

Judy Woodruff has our report .

JUDY WOODRUFF: The procession began at dawn, and, throughout the day, Israeli buses carried hundreds of detained pro-Palestinian activists to Ben Gurion Airport and to the border with Jordan.

Nearly 700 people were captured on Monday, when Israeli commandos raided six ships trying to break a blockade and ferry aid to Gaza. Nine people were killed in fighting on one of the ships. Israel’s military released video that showed activists attacking the soldiers. But the group sponsoring the convoy insisted the Israelis fired first.

Initially, the Israelis planned to hold 50 activists with alleged ties to al-Qaida or similar groups, but, today, government spokesman Mark Regev announced the change of plans.

MARK REGEV, Israeli government spokesperson: We have no desire whatsoever to see these activists lingering in an Israeli detention center. And we’re acting now for their immediate return to their countries of origin.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That decision came after days of mounting criticism, culminating in an order from the Israeli attorney general.

It said of the detainees, “Keeping them here would do more damage to the country’s vital interests than good.”

JUDY WOODRUFF: As the deportations proceed, 120 of the detainees were bused to Jordan and greeted with applause and shouts of “Allahu akbar” — “God is great.”

Once freed, they gave their own accounts of what happened during Monday’s raid.

OSAMA AL KANDARI, Kuwaiti activist deported from Israel (through translator): I saw four martyrs. I have seen them all shot in the head. They used snipers to kill them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Others accuse the Israelis of mistreatment.

NADIM AHMED, Pakistani activist deported from Israel: They shoot, they killed people. And there was a mess-up. They never give us medical immediate aid. They brutally behaved. They handcuffed everybody. They never let them move to toilet. They never let them do anything.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Half of the detainees and four of those killed were Turkish citizens. And, late today, a flight carrying the dead and some of the injured arrived in Istanbul. Turkey has been Israel’s closest Muslim-majority ally.

But, for a third day, hundreds of Turks protested outside the Israeli ambassador’s residence in Ankara. Today, Turkey’s foreign minister demanded Israel lift its blockade of Gaza as a condition of restoring full ties. In London, British Prime Minister David Cameron also urged Israel to lift the blockade.

But, in New York, while expressing concern for the plight of Palestinians suffering in Gaza, Vice President Joe Biden voiced support for Israel. He spoke with PBS’ Charlie Rose.

U.S. VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: You can argue whether Israel should have dropped people onto that ship or not and the rest, 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.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Meantime, international Mideast envoy Tony Blair said the blockade of Hamas-ruled Gaza has been counterproductive.

TONY BLAIR, former British prime minister: My view is, the blockade of Gaza has got to — to change, to stop. We need a different policy for Gaza. We need a better policy for Gaza. But we needed that even before this incident occurred.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, in Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insisted that lifting the blockade would open the door to illicit arms shipments to Hamas.

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, Israeli prime minister (through translator): Now the rockets and missiles that Iran is trying to get into Gaza — and some are already there — are aimed at Tel Aviv, Herzliya, and Jerusalem. It is our responsibility and our right. According to international law and common sense, it is our duty to prevent these weapons from entering via airways, the sea, and the ground into Gaza.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The blockade will be tested again in the coming days. An Irish cargo ship may try to break through the Israeli cordon as early as tomorrow.