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Deadly flotilla raid could pit Israel against Turkey, roiling region

Israeli commandos stormed a flotilla of pro-Palestinian activists attempting to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza early Monday morning, killing at least nine people and sparking protests in Arab capitals across the world.

News accounts differed as to the number of dead. Al Jazeera reported that as many as 19 had been killed, while the Jerusalem Post put the number at 15. The Post called the incident a “botched naval raid.”

The attack earned Israel widespread international condemnation, with many countries canceling planned military exercises with Israel and visits from Israeli officials. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu canceled a planned trip to the United States this week to talk about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process with President Obama.

The incident could have especially dire consequences for Israel’s relationship with Turkey, a major power in the region and historically one of the few Muslim countries that have maintained strong ties with Israel. Relations between the two countries had already hit a low point in recent months. Turkey has attempted to reassert its dominance in the Middle East after largely giving up on its attempts to fully integrate into the Euro zone, which have been met with resistance.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the attack “state terrorism,” as Turkey recalled its ambassador to Israel and canceled planned joint military exercises. The Turkish foreign ministry posted a statement on its website Monday condemning the raid in the strongest language yet:

Israel has once again clearly demonstrated that it does not value human lives and peaceful initiatives through targeting innocent civilians. We strongly condemn these inhuman acts of Israel. This grave incident which took place in high seas in gross violation of international law might cause irreversible consequences in our relations.

Besides the initiatives being conducted by our Embassy in Tel Aviv, this unacceptable incident is being strongly protested and explanation is demanded from Israeli Ambassador in Ankara, who has been invited to our Ministry.

Whatsoever the motives might be, such actions against civilians who are involved only in peaceful activities cannot be accepted. Israel will have to bear the consequences of these actions which constitute a violation of international law.

At an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council on Monday, Turkey’s foreign minister said the Israeli raid was “tantamount to banditry and piracy.” Israel’s deputy U.N. ambassador, Daniel Carmon, defended the Israeli military’s actions and said the activists were more interested in provoking Israel than delivering humanitarian aid.

“The answer is clear,” Carmon told Council members. “There [sic] are not peace activists; they were not messengers of goodwill.  They cynically used the guise of humanitarian aid to send a message of hate and to implement violence.”

Turkey had been the unofficial sponsor of the aid flotilla, giving its implicit support to the Turkish humanitarian organization Insani Yardim Vakfi, which sent a large passenger ship and another cargo ship. The Free Gaza organization said Monday that at least six of the dead were Turkish citizens, and thousands of people gathered in Istanbul to protest the Israeli raid, chanting “murderous Israel, you will drown in the blood you shed.”

Greta Berlin, one of the founders of the Free Gaza movement, which helped organize the flotilla, told Need to Know on Friday that she doubted Israel would use force on the ships because it would most likely want to avoid a conflict with Turkey.

“I don’t think they want to have a confrontation with Turkey, that’s the least thing that they want to do,” Berlin said in a telephone interview from Cyprus before the ships set sail. Of Israeli threats to board the ships and detain the activists, she added: “If you’ve seen the Turkish ships, they’re enormous. Not only is the Turkish passenger ship large, the cargo ships are large. So it’s not going to be an easy thing.”