JERUSALEM — As Israel fended off worldwide condemnation for the deaths of nine international activists aboard a Gaza-bound ship and blamed the rioting on the flotilla’s organizers, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu canceled a planned visit to the White House.
Netanyahu was scheduled to meet Tuesday with President Obama following a weekend visit to Canada, which included a working meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper. The visit would have been Netanyahu’s first meeting with Obama since a late March meeting at the White House in which the administration was accused of snubbing the Israeli leader.
Obama and Netanyahu spoke by telephone and agreed to set up a meeting at a later date, according to the Prime Minister’s Office.
In Washington, the White House released a statement Monday on the incident.
“The United States deeply regrets the loss of life and injuries sustained, and is currently working to understand the circumstances surrounding this tragedy,” the statement said.
Israel’s Navy intercepted six ships early Monday morning about 70 miles off Gaza’s coast in international waters. The ships were among a fleet of nine carrying humanitarian aid and hundreds of pro-Palestinian activists. The Gaza “Freedom Flotilla,” organized by the pro-Hamas Free Gaza group, had left last week from ports in Ireland, Greece and Turkey.
Israel had radioed to the ships numerous times late Sunday night and early Monday morning requesting that they head to the port of Ashdod, where they could unload their aid material to be transferred to Gaza after security inspections, the Israel Defense Forces said in a statement.
Upon boarding the largest ship, the Marmara, run by IHH, a Turkish humanitarian relief fund with a radical Islamic anti-Western orientation, the naval forces were attacked with metal clubs and knives, as well as live fire, according to the IDF.
“The demonstrators had clearly prepared their weapons in advance for this specific purpose,” the statement said, adding that the Navy then used riot dispersal methods, which include live fire.
“The forces operated in adherence with operational commands and took all necessary actions in order to avoid violence, but to no avail,” the IDF statement said.
On May 26, Netanyahu’s forum of seven Cabinet ministers had decided that Israel’s Navy would prevent the convoy from reaching Gaza — by force, if necessary. The ships were to be directed to Ashdod, with the hundreds of activists aboard deported to their countries of origin. The food, clothing and construction materials on the ships would be transferred to Gaza after inspection.
In addition to the activists who died in the rioting, tens of protesters were injured and evacuated to Israeli hospitals. Seven Israeli soldiers were reported injured; two listed in serious condition were upgraded later to moderate.
“We found weapons that were prepared in advance and used against our forces,” Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon said of the ship during a news conference Monday afternoon. “The organizers’ intent was violent, their method was violent, and unfortunately, the results were violent.”
Ayalon said that if the ships’ journey was truly for humanitarian purposes, they would have accepted Israel’s offer to deliver the goods to Gaza. He pointed out that organizers said repeatedly that their goal was to break the blockade on Gaza.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak blamed the organizers of the convoy for the violent outcome.
“The sail was a provocation. The organization behind the flotilla is not a humanitarian aid organization,” he said during a news conference Monday afternoon.
Days before the convoy’s arrival, the Navy held several drills to prepare for turning back the convoy — including preparing for violence.
Audrey Bomse, legal adviser to the Free Gaza movement, told CNN that the purpose of the flotilla was to break the Gaza siege, adding that “the siege is not legal.” She also pointed out that the United Nations-sponsored Goldstone report called the siege a “probable crime against humanity.”
Turkish authorities inspected the Marmara before it left for Gaza, Bomse said, and therefore she does not believe that it would have had weapons on board.
“It was supposed to be a nonviolent protest,” she stressed.
Bomse said that leaders of the protest did not agree to give Israel the humanitarian aid to pass on because Israel would not have allowed some of the cargo, including building materials and pre-fab houses, to be given to Gaza.
Israel has imposed a maritime blockade of Gaza because the Jewish state is in a state of armed conflict with Hamas, which controls the strip, according to the Foreign Ministry.
“Maritime blockades are a legitimate and recognized measure under international law that may be implemented as part of an armed conflict at sea,” including in international waters as long as it does not bar neutral states from reaching ports and coasts of other states, according to the ministry statement.
“The protesters indicated their clear intention to violate the blockade by means of written and oral statements. Moreover, the route of these vessels indicated their clear intention to violate the blockade in violation of international law,” the ministry said, adding that “Given the protesters explicit intention to violate the naval blockade, Israel exercised its right under international law to enforce the blockade.”
The ministry added that “explicit warnings were relayed directly to the captains of the vessels, expressing Israel’s intent to exercise its right to enforce the blockade.”
Israel police moved to high alert across the country out of concern that Arab citizens of Israel would riot. As part of the measures, the Temple Mount area in Jerusalem was closed to visitors. Israeli Arabs rioted at the Uhm-al-Fahm junction and in the city of Acre. Hundreds of Arab students also protested at Haifa University, injuring a policeman.
Peace Now activists protested in Tel Aviv and made their way to the Ashdod port to continue their protests.
Some 10,000 Turkish citizens rallied against Israel during a march that began in front of the Israeli Consulate. The crowd reportedly shouted “Damn Israel” and called for revenge. Hundreds of protesters gathered in front of the Israeli Embassy in Paris, and protests took place in three other French cities.
Turkey also reportedly recalled its ambassador to Israel, further weakening ties between the two countries. The recall came after Israel’s ambassador to Turkey was called in to the country’s Foreign Ministry to provide more information on the incident.
Meanwhile, Israel’s National Security Council Counter-Terrorism Bureau called on Israelis to delay travel to Turkey and urged Israelis in Turkey to “remain in their places of residence, avoid city centers and sites in which demonstrations are being held, and monitor developments out of concern that the situation could worsen.”
Along with Turkey, Israeli ambassadors in several countries, including Spain, Sweden and Greece, also were called in to their foreign ministries.
The European Union on Monday morning called for a comprehensive inquiry into the flotilla deaths and the lifting of the Gaza blockade.
“High Representative Catherine Ashton expresses her deep regret at the news of loss of life and violence, and extends her sympathies to families of the dead and wounded,” said a spokesman for Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy chief.
Meanwhile, the United Nations Security Council began meeting in emergency session on Monday afternoon to discuss the incident.
Government leaders around the world condemned Israel for the loss of life in what most termed a disproportionate use of force, including French President Nicolas Sarkozy, British Foreign Secretary William Hague and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Greece also withdrew from joint military exercises with Israel in protest.
Two American left-wing groups called for investigations into the bloodshed and called for more serious efforts to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, while another Jewish organization blamed protesters for the violence.
J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami said in a statement issued Monday that his organization was “shocked and saddened” by reports of the killed and wounded international activists and Israel soldiers.
“A credible, independent commission appointed by the Israeli government should provide the world with a full and complete report into the causes and circumstances surrounding the day’s events and establish responsibility for the violence and bloodshed,” the statement said.
Ben-Ami called on President Obama and other international leaders to use the incident “as an opportunity to engage even more forcefully in immediate efforts to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
Americans for Peace Now called on Israel “to thoroughly investigate the operation and to reassess its policy toward the Gaza Strip.”
Meanwhile, the American Jewish Committee condemned the Free Gaza movement and its supporters for deliberately provoking a violent confrontation with the Israeli Navy.
“This tragedy on the high seas could have been avoided, and we regret the loss of life,” AJC Executive Director David Harris said. “The fact that the flotilla refused to cooperate with Israel’s repeated entreaties to unload their humanitarian cargo in Ashdod for delivery to Gaza proves that violent clashes are exactly what the international supporters of Hamas must have been seeking.”