TEL AVIV // Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, yesterday cancelled a highly anticipated meeting with the US president as he attempted to limit the damage to Israel's image after the attack on aid ships. Mr Netanyahu was due to meet Barack Obama today in their first face-to-face talks since a frosty White House meeting in March that was viewed by many as a US bid to humiliate the premier because of Israel's settlements policy.
The prime minister joined a chorus of top Israeli officials who defended the raid and brandished the protesters as hard-core extremists who had prepared an ambush against the commandos. In remarks aired by Israeli television, Mr Netanyahu, who had been travelling in Canada since Friday, said: "The soldiers were beat up, stabbed; there were even gunshot sounds, and they were forced to defend themselves. Unfortunately, approximately 10 people were killed."
Danny Ayalon, Israel's deputy foreign minister, accused the convoy of a "premeditated and outrageous provocation" and described it as an "armada of hate". He also described the activists as allies of Hamas and al Qa'eda. He added that, had the protesters got through to Gaza, they would have opened an arms-smuggling route to the enclave. Ehud Barak, the defence minister, laid the blame on the flotilla's organisers and insisted that Israel had the right to examine all cargo entering Gaza. He also attempted to dampen criticism of Israel's three-year blockade on Gaza. "There is no hunger in Gaza, and there is no humanitarian crisis."
In a report last week, Amnesty International said shortages caused by the siege have left four in five Gazans dependent on humanitarian aid. Israel drew wide foreign anger yesterday for the raid. The Obama administration voiced concern about the attack, saying it "deeply regrets the loss of life and injuries sustained" and that it was "currently working to understand the circumstances surrounding the tragedy".
Analysts warned that the confrontation could jeopardise Israel's relations with key allies, possibly even leading to a total break in ties with Turkey, a rare Muslim friend of Israel whose flag had been flown by several of the vessels. Amos Harel, a commentator for the liberal Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz, said: "The damage that Israel has caused itself internationally can hardly be exaggerated. The world will judge the incident as an excessive use of force with no clear justification."
Yaron Ezrachi, a political science professor from Jerusalem's Hebrew University, said the attacks will further isolate Israel following its devastating Gaza onslaught, increasing its dependence on the United States, its most powerful ally. He added that the United States "will now have greater leverage to demand from Israel to refrain from actions that the country's right-wing government may pressure Netanyahu to do", such as continue settlement building once a partial construction freeze expires in September.
Analysts also cautioned that the clash could spur violence between Israel and the Palestinians, including those that are part of its Arab minority. Indeed, yesterday several protesters were arrested in rallies held by Israeli Palestinians in Jerusalem and in northern Israeli towns, and in which hundreds participated. The Higher Follow-up Committee, the main political body for Israel's Palestinian citizens, called for a general strike to take place today. Mohammad Barakeh, a Palestinian legislator in Israel's parliament, called the attack a "crime of the pirate government" while Jamal Zahalka, another Palestinian lawmaker, termed it a "massacre".
Human rights groups, including Amnesty, demanded that Israel launch an "immediate, credible and independent" investigation into the killings, saying its forces "appear clearly to have used excessive force". The groups said Israel must investigate whether the army used proportionate force, whether its forces were trained to cope with this kind of confrontation and what their open-fire orders were.
Gisha, an Israeli rights group, said in reference to Israel's 2005 withdrawal from Gaza: "This incident is proof that despite claims to the contrary, Israel never 'disengaged' from the Gaza Strip but rather continues to control its borders - land, air and sea." email@example.com