TEL AVIV // Israel held hundreds of activists yesterday that had been aboard the six Gaza-bound aid ships that it captured in Monday's bloody operation, as it prepared to intercept another aid ship en route to the tiny enclave. About 700 activists, many of them Turks, as well as Palestinians, Americans and Europeans - and including a Jewish Holocaust survivor, politicians and an 18-month-old toddler - underwent security and medical checks in and around the port city of Ashdod, where the ships had been escorted.
Of those, Israel's interior ministry said in a statement that more than 40 had been taken to the Israeli airport for voluntary repatriation, while the rest were issued deportation orders and jailed after contensting the order. Many of them were driven to a new prison in the desert city of Beer Sheba, where they occupied two- or four-person cells under what Israeli officials said were "good conditions".
The interior ministry said that most of those held had agreed to provide their names and other identification details and are expected to be deported by the end of the week, while more than a dozen others have refused to co-operate. In the meantime, Israel's top officials escalated a campaign to place the blame on the flotilla's organisers for the killing of at least nine activists during the raid.
Yitzhak Aharonovitch, Israel's internal security minister, said police were gathering evidence that could be implemented against activists, whom he claimed used gunfire, knives, batons and their fists to assault the marines. He added: "All those who had lifted a hand against a soldier will be punished to the full extent of the law." Nevertheless, some military officials conceded that mistakes were made, with a commander of the marines that took part in the raid saying on Israeli radio that the raid was conducted with poor intelligence. He said the commandoes "did not expect such resistance from the group's activists".
Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, was to convene with his cabinet later yesterday amid tensions among the ministers, some of whom were quoted in the Israeli media as expressing anger for not being involved in the decision to raid the ships. The premier had returned to Israel from Canada, after cancelling a planned meeting with Barack Obama, the US president, that was due to take place yesterday.
Amid the barrage of criticism from the European Union, Turkey and other countries, the Israeli government also drew condemnation at home for bungling the naval operation that was carried out by one of its most elite military units. Many analysts said Israel's top military brass did not sufficiently prepare the operation, and had not taken into consideration that the marines would encounter violent opposition from the activists.
The top Israeli newspapers did not mince words in criticising the attack, with one describing it as a "blunder" in banner headlines. As Israel struggled to control the damage to its image, violence flared up along its border with Gaza. The Israeli army said an exchange of fire took place between its troops and several Palestinians trying to enter Israel, in a clash that media reports said resulted in the killing of two Palestinians. In a separate incident, another three Palestinians were reportedly killed later in the day as Israel launched an air strike in Gaza in response to the firing of several rockets on its territory.