Israel on Tuesday night rejected international calls to end its naval blockade of Gaza and to launch an “independent” investigation into the death of at least nine activists during an IDF raid of the Mavi Marmara passenger ship, which was part of a flotilla that aimed to break that closure.
“It’s important to understand that this [blockade] is essential to protect Israel’s security and its right to defend itself,” Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu told a special meeting of the diplomatic-security cabinet in Jerusalem.
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Gaza is an “Iranian-sponsored terrorist state,” and as such it is vitally important to prevent the entry of weapons there, whether by air, sea and land, he said.
He acknowledged that weapons are already smuggled into Gaza through tunnels, but said there was a vast difference between the scope of that operation and the scale and quantity of weapons that could be brought into Gaza by ship if cargo was allowed to arrive unchecked.
“On the ship Francop alone we caught about 200 tons of weapons smuggled from Iran to Hizbullah,” Netanyahu said, referring to the seizure of an arms-bearing cargo ship in the Mediterranean last November.
“Opening [a naval] route to Gaza would be a huge threat to the security of our citizens. That is why we insist on maintaining the blockade and on examining the ships” in spite of the international pressure and criticism against it, he said.
Since Hamas’s violent takeover of Gaza in 2007, Israel has closed the three land crossings into the Strip to all but humanitarian supplies. No supplies reach Gaza by sea.
On Tuesday, Egypt temporarily lifted its closure of the Rafah border into Gaza.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan demanded that Israel end the “inhuman blockade.” He accused Israel of executing a “bloody massacre” when it raided the Mavi Marmara, which carried its flag and had 271 Turkish citizens on board. Four of them were killed in the attack.
The attack “deserves every kind of curse,” said Erdogan.
“Israel has once again shown to the world that they know how good they are at killing people,” he said. “Israel in no way can legitimize this murder, it cannot wash its hand of this blood. Israel cannot ensure its security by drawing the hatred of the entire world.
“No one should test Turkey’s patience,” he added. “Turkey’s hostility is as strong as its friendship is valuable.”
Turkey, which on Monday recalled its ambassador from Tel Aviv
, was among the harshest critics of the raid. But the UN Security Council and individual countries around the world also condemned the confrontation.
In a conversation with Netanyahu on Monday night, British Prime Minister David Cameron urged Israel to do “everything possible to avoid a repeat of this unacceptable situation.” He also asked Israel to lift the closure of the land crossings.
The UN Security Council stressed “the need for sustained and regular flow of goods and people to Gaza as well as unimpeded provision and distribution of humanitarian assistance throughout Gaza.”
It also called on Israel to hold a “prompt, impartial, credible and transparent investigation conforming to international standards.”
Government sources said it believed the IDF investigation which Israel would conduct with regard to this incident, as it does after every incident of this nature, met the highest standard of investigations which are held in any democratic country.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said they backed the UN Security Council’s call for an investigation. Clinton added that the US could support “an Israeli investigation that meets those criteria” and was open to different means of assuring a credible investigation, including international participation. She said that the Obama administration would be discussing these avenues with Israel and other countries in the days ahead.
She said the US fully supported the statement put out by the Security Council on Monday and would work toward its implementation.
“The situation in Gaza is unsustainable and unacceptable,” she said. “Israel’s legitimate security needs must be met, just as the Palestinians’ legitimate needs for sustained humanitarian assistance and regular access for reconstruction materials must also be assured.”
With respect to the Gaza crossings, government sources said that there was an ongoing dialogue with the international community on this policy and that the material being allowed into the Strip had increased in variety and volume.
Israeli leaders and diplomats continued to work hard on Tuesday to quell the international storm of criticism against Israel, with a particular eye toward the United States.
Although Netanyahu canceled his planned visit to the US on Tuesday to return to Israel, Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Minister Yuli Edelstein made a public relations trip to New York.
Netanyahu’s spokesman Mark Regev held a conference call with 400 people, including reporters, with the help of The Israel Project NGO.
Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon held a conference call with 700 members of the Jewish Federations of North America. He warned them not to fall for the tactics of those who were trying to divert attention away from the problem of a nuclear Iran.
“We have to keep our eyes on the ball, which is Iran,” he said.
Netanyahu, who visited soldiers wounded in Monday’s raid, said that they acted in self-defense.
“The last thing you can say about this ship was that it was a peace rally,” he said.
The people on the ship attacked the soldiers with axes, knives and clubs, said Netanyahu, who added that they may have even grabbed the commandos’ guns.
Ministers in the seven-member inner cabinet criticized Defense Minister Ehud Barak in closed conversations, saying he had misspoken when he said in his press conference on Monday that the inner cabinet had approved the raid.
The ministers said there was no deep discussion about strategy for handling the flotilla and there was no vote. They said talk about the flotilla was superficial and focused solely on how to handle it from a public relations perspective.
The Prime Minister’s Office responded that there was in fact a
discussion, while Barak dismissed the criticism, telling Channel 2 that
the ministers were “playing Monday-morning quarterback.”
Ministers in the larger 20-member security cabinet that Netanyahu
convened on Tuesday who are not in the smaller forum also expressed
frustration that they were not consulted about the move. The meeting
ended without any conclusions and will be continued on Wednesday.
Separately, US special envoy George Mitchell returns to the region on
Wednesday to continue the proximity talks with the Palestinian
Authority.Gil Hoffman, Hilary Leila Krieger and AP contributed to this report.