JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Defending Israel’s enforcement of its blockade of Gaza, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Wednesday it was vital for security and would stay in place.
In a televised speech after world outrage erupted over nine deaths in Monday’s seizure of a Turkish ship bound for Gaza, a defiant Netanyahu said easing controls would put Iranian missiles in the hands of the Palestinian enclave’s Hamas rulers.
This threatened not just Israel but Europe too, he said.
Turkey, a Muslim country that had been Israel’s strategic ally, accused it of “state terrorism” and has recalled its ambassador from Tel Aviv and demanded it lift its blockade.
Those calls have been echoed by European leaders and the United Nations whose Human Rights Council voted to set up an independent fact-finding mission into the incident.
Israel’s key backer, the United States, is less outspoken. It has called for calm. Western powers agree with Israel that Iranian-backed Hamas is a threat but say the embargo should not punish the 1.5 million people trapped in the Gaza Strip.
Netanyahu made no mention of launching any form of investigation, despite the growing calls inside Israel as well for a hard look at what critics say was a bungled raid.
He lambasted world leaders for criticizing the ships’ takeover, accusing some of holding Israel to what he called a double standard and questioning its right to defense.
“Once again, Israel faces hypocrisy and a biased rush to judgment,” Netanyahu said as he defended the actions of Israeli marines who, he said, fired in self-defense against Turks wielding sticks and knives on the cruise liner Mavi Marmara.
“The international community cannot afford an Iranian port on the Mediterranean...The same countries that are criticizing us today, should know that they could be targeted tomorrow.”
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said leaders in London and Washington were discussing what might be done to ease the pain of the blockade on ordinary Gazans, telling parliament it had created an “unacceptable and unsustainable situation.”
Israel said it was deporting all 682 activists from more than 35 countries detained after the assault in international waters on the six ships it commandeered. All but nine wounded prisoners were expected to be gone by the end of the day.
The accounts of some released challenged Israeli versions that all of those shot, including two who grabbed pistols from the boarding party, were attacking the marines.
Moroccan Islamist lawmaker Abdelkader Amara said: “I will never forget a Turkish companion. I had just left him to go down below and I thought he would follow me, and then I saw they had shot him in the chest and he died.”
Israel says it has not been able to identify all nine dead, but says most of them were Turks.
It said the marines who rappelled onto the Mavi Marmara, fired in self-defense after activists attacked them with clubs, knives, as well as two pistols snatched from the commandos.
Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai told parliament that two of the activists killed during the takeover were shot after they used the two handguns to wound two commandos.
Turkey said three of the nine dead had been identified as Turks and a fourth had a Turkish credit card. Israel has not named publicly any of those killed.
An opinion poll in Israel’s Maariv newspaper showed that more than 60 percent of Israelis believed the interception was flawed operationally. But few question the Gaza blockade.
Israeli military affairs experts have described the assault as a blunder because the strength of the resistance on board was underestimated. Andre Abu Khalil, a Lebanese television cameraman deported on Wednesday, said he saw Turks on the Mavi Marmara seize the first four commandos to land on the deck.
Israel has said marines winched down from helicopters armed with riot-control paintball guns were beaten and about to be “lynched” before comrades opened fire with live ammunition.
“The first attempt to descend failed. They detained four soldiers,” Abu Khalil said. “They (Israelis) opened fire on three quarters of the men who were at the back of the ship.”
Tensions over the flotilla rippled through Israel’s parliament on Wednesday where a Jewish lawmaker denounced as a traitor an Arab member, Hanin Zoabi, who had been aboard one of the ships. Another tried to grab Zoabi’s microphone.
A new attempt to bust the blockade loomed on the horizon: The MV Rachel Corrie, a converted merchant ship bought by pro-Palestinian activists and named after an American woman killed in the Gaza Strip in 2003, set off on Monday from Malta.
It is carrying 15 activists, including a Northern Irish Nobel Peace laureate, and expects to be at the point of Monday’s interception between Friday evening and Saturday morning, crew member Derek Graham told Irish state broadcaster RTE.
Asked how Israel would treat any new attempt to steam into Gaza, Tzachi Hanegbi, head of parliament’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, said: “We cannot let them blur the red line Israel has set. Letting them in to help Hamas is not an option.”
Egypt, which has kept its own Gaza border largely closed since Hamas, an offshoot of the opposition Muslim Brotherhood, seized the territory in 2007, reopened the frontier.
The move was widely seen as an attempt to deflect criticism of its blockade, and hundreds of Palestinians flocked to the frontier terminal at Rafah on Wednesday. It is the only Gaza crossing not controlled by Israel.
Additional reporting by Ari Rabinovitch in Jerusalem, Nidal al-Mughrabi in Rafah, Tom Perry in Ramallah, Marie-Louise Gumuchian in Dublin, Simon Cameron-Moore in Istanbul, Yara Bayoumy in Beirut, Zakia Abdennebi in Rabat and Lamine Chikh in Algiers; editing by Angus MacSwan