Israel minister sees "scandal" over ship killings

An Israeli cabinet minister said he anticipated "a big scandal" following the killing of more than 10 activists aboard Gaza-bound aid ships boarded by Israeli security forces on Monday.

The deaths aboard the flotilla of six boats, including vessels flying the flag of Israel's rare Muslim ally Turkey, drew calls for an inquiry from the European Union, and expressions of shock from France and the United Nations.

"It's going to be a big scandal, no doubt about it," Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, the trade minister, told Reuters Insider in an interview in Doha, where he was on a visit to Qatar, one of the few Arab states where Israeli officials can travel.

"The whole thing was a provocation from its beginning. They planned it almost two months ago, and we tried all the way to explain to them: 'Gentlemen don't try to do it because we have all the right to defend ourselves'," he said in English.

Gaza, run by the Hamas group, is under a tight blockade imposed by Israel, aided by Egypt. Hamas, which seized control of Gaza in 2007, is hostile to the Jewish state. The blockade is itself the focus of criticism by Israel's Western allies.

Five Israeli soldiers were wounded during the operation. The Israeli army says its soldiers came under gunfire.

"We tried our best to block the way. Everyone can judge us. When there is blood, you cannot explain anything," Ben-Eliezer, himself a former defense minister, said.

Ben-Eliezer, a member of the left-wing Labour party inside the right-led coalition government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, renewed his calls for a peace deal with the Palestinians and said he hoped the crisis could bring pressure to advance talks. His views are rarely shared by Netanyahu.

Israel has faced a series of diplomatic storms in recent months. Israeli diplomats were expelled by Australia and Britain over the faking of passports used by the assassins of a Hamas leader in Dubai in January.

Israel's ties with the United States, its main ally, suffered in March when the announcement of plans for new Jewish settlement building in East Jerusalem temporarily set back Washington's efforts to get Middle East peace talks moving.

[Source: Por Moira Sidoti, Reuters, Doha, 31May10]

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