Gaza flotilla deaths: pressure builds on Israel for full inquiry

Israel said last night that it would release more than 600 pro-Palestinian activists detained after commandos stormed an aid flotilla bound for Gaza - an assault which left nine dead and led to increasing calls for an independent, impartial inquiry.

The decision to free the activists came as first accounts from those on the ships began to emerge, with some claiming the Israeli forces who stormed the largest ship in the flotilla - the Mavi Marmara - shot to kill and used electric stun guns.

The accounts differed sharply from those coming from Israeli politicians and military, who said the soldiers were provoked into violence. A spokesman said it had been a measure of last resort after its troops had found themselves in a lynching when they landed on the ship.

Israel insists its troops came under sustained and unprovoked attack, pointing to what it claimed was cast-iron video evidence and soldiers' testimony.

All those detained would be sent home at Israel's expense, an Israeli official said. "Things have evolved," he said. "Everyone will be released, as long as long as they produce papers. No one will be prosecuted. Interrogations did not yield material that could result in a conviction in a court of law."

As many as 40 Britons, including a 63-year-old timber yard owner, Peter Venner, from the Isle of Wight, and a 43-year-old postal worker from Edinburgh, Theresa McDermott, were among those detained in the desert city of Be'er Sheva. One British activist, Ahsan Shamruc, was being treated in hospital for his injuries and was said to be in a stable condition.

Calls yesterday for a full international investigation into the fatal events were led by Turkey, whose nationals made up most of the dead. The country's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, denounced the pre-dawn storming of the flotilla on Monday as a bloody massacre, telling his parliament: "It is no longer possible to cover up or ignore Israel's lawlessness."

Erdogan demanded the US condemn the assault, but Washington blocked an attempt at the UN security council for an international inquiry, issuing a mild statement regretting the loss of life. Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, later called the Gaza situation "unsustainable".

"Israel's legitimate security needs must be met, just as the Palestinians' legitimate needs for sustained humanitarian assistance and regular access to reconstruction materials must also be assured," she said.

After 10 hours of deliberation, the security council called for a prompt, impartial, credible and transparent investigation conforming to international standards .

Britain's foreign secretary, William Hague, said: "We agree with our EU and other international partners that there must be a full and impartial and independent investigation or inquiry into these events."

Asked if Israel would co-operate with an international investigation, Mark Regev, spokesman for the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, said such calls were "simply holding Israel to a standing that no one else in the international community is expected to abide by".

Israel was expected to launch its own inquiry into the raid, which took place in international waters and left seven commandos injured, some seriously. Previous investigations into operations resulting in bloodshed have failed to satisfy critics.

The chief of general staff, Lt Gen Gabi Ashkenazi, said there would also be a military inquiry into the mission. "You operated outstandingly," he told wounded soldiers in hospital in Haifa, adding: "There is still a need to further investigate what happened. The inquiry would learn lessons for the future."

Netanyahu returned to Israel yesterday after putting off a meeting with Barack Obama. He regretted the loss of life but said troops had acted in self-defence. "We will stand firm on our policy of a naval blockade [of Gaza]," he told his security cabinet. "It's true there is international pressure and criticism but [the world] must understand that it is crucial to preserving Israel's security."

There were signs of tentative dissent. The deputy prime minister, Dan Meridor, told Israel's Army Radio the outcome of the operation to take over the flotilla was "very difficult", adding that the responsibility lay with the political establishment.

Survivors claimed the battle was one-sided. "It was like war," said Annette Groth, a German politician who was on the Mavi Marmara. "They had guns, Taser weapons, some type of teargas and other weaponry, compared to two-and-a-half wooden sticks we had between us. To talk of self-defence is ridiculous."

Egypt yesterday agreed to open its border crossing to Gaza for several days to allow the movement of aid. The move was seen as a response to increasing Arab anger at Egypt's perceived complicity.

Three Palestinians were killed by an Israeli airstrike on Gaza yesterday following the firing of rockets into Israel.

[Source: By Harriet Sherwood, The Guardian, Jerusalem, 02Jun10]

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