Seven of 19 activists from the Rachel Corrie aid ship which tried to run the Gaza siege were expelled from Israel today as calls grew for an end to the crippling blockade of the Hamas-ruled enclave. The remaining 12 would be deported later today, an Israeli official said, as the prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, defending an earlier botched raid which left nine dead, insisted Israel would never allow a situation in which arms could be sent to Gaza's Islamist rulers.
"Everyone on board the boat will be expelled today after they signed a waiver renouncing their right to appeal to an Israeli judge," an Israeli immigration official Sabine Haddad said. Six Malaysians and a Cuban national from the boat were deported to Jordan early this afternoon, leaving Israel via the Allenby Bridge, an AFP correspondent at the crossing said. An Indonesian journalist, who was injured in last Monday's deadly commando raid, also crossed with the group.
The remaining 11 activists from the Rachel Corrie - five Irish nationals, including Nobel Peace laureate Mairead Maguire and six Filipinos - as well as the ship's Scottish captain, were to fly out of Ben Gurion international airport later in the afternoon and overnight, Mr Haddad said. Israeli forces intercepted and seized control of the boat yesterday as it tried to reach the Gaza Strip, in a peaceful operation which had a radically different outcome from Monday's raid in which Israeli commandos stormed a Turkish boat packed with more than 600 passengers.
Israel says its commandos only resorted to force after being attacked as they reached the deck, but activists claim the soldiers started firing first. The pre-dawn operation, which left nine activists dead and scores injured including seven navy seals, has put huge pressure on Israel to rethink its blockade on Gaza. However, Mr Netanyahu dismissed suggestions the siege should be eased. "We shall not allow the establishment of an Iranian port in Gaza and the free flow of weapons to Hamas," he told the weekly cabinet meeting.
Asked about the possibility of allowing for the inspection of cargoes at sea, the finance minister Yuval Steinitz was dismissive. "We could consider it, but I don't think its a good idea," he said, while another Israeli source said: "There are a lot of ideas about this but the prime minister's office is very dubious about it." The source said one of the main problems for Israel was the difficulty of carrying out effective checks at sea.
"It is very difficult to check a ship's cargo at sea, and Israel is not satisfied with the experience of UNIFIL checking boats heading into Lebanon," he said, referring to a UN maritime taskforce set up after the 2006 Lebanon war for preventing weapons reaching militia groups in Lebanon. "And if you want to bring it into a port, you need a neutral port. It is a very complex issue." Monday's disastrous raid should be used as an opportunity to press Israel to change its policy on Gaza, a senior UN official said today.
"We very much want to see what's happened - or use what's happened, tragic as it is - as an opportunity to try to ... persuade Israel to change policy," said John Holmes, the under secretary-general for humanitarian affairs. Speaking in Sydney, Mr Holmes said the blockade was "unacceptable, counterproductive, (and) very damaging for the people of Gaza." "It's not a sensible policy," Mr Holmes said. "It's not helping to combat extremism."
Britain, too, joined a growing chorus of calls for Israel to end the blockade, which was imposed in 2006 after Gaza-based Hamas militants kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who is still being held. "The humanitarian situation in Gaza is both unacceptable and unsustainable," the international development secretary Andrew Mitchell said in London as Britain said it would give £19 million (Dh101m) to refugees there.
And Pope Benedict XVI today called for an "urgent effort" end to bloodshed in the Middle East at the end of a visit to Cyprus. "I reiterate my personal appeal for an urgent and concerted international effort to resolve the ongoing tensions in the Middle East, especially before such conflicts lead to greater bloodshed," the pontiff said. * AFP