Israeli Navy Kills 4 off Gaza Strip

The Israeli navy says it thwarted a marine attack on Monday when it opened fire on a boat off the Gaza Strip, killing four Palestinians in wetsuits. Israel’s army said the boat was discovered carrying a squad of armed men wearing wetsuits early Monday morning. The army said it believed the men were setting out to carry out an attack.

In a message sent to media in the Gaza Strip, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade said the four dead were part of its marine unit. The militant group, which has ties to the Fatah party headed by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, said the marine unit was conducting training in Gaza’s waters.

Moawiya Hassanaian, a Palestinian health official, said the four bodies were taken to a hospital in central Gaza. The Palestinian naval police said two people were missing.

The Israeli unit responsible for intercepting the boat is the same naval group involved in a May 31 raid on a flotilla of aid that attempted to break the Israeli blockade against the Gaza Strip, which is controlled by Hamas. Army officials said Monday’s interception is a shot in the arm for a unit that has been under security since the storming of the flotilla left nine dead and several injured. The dead included eight Turks and one Turkish-American. The flotilla raid renewed international attention on the three-year-old blockade against Gaza, which Israel says is necessary to isolate the Hamas militants and keep them from expanding their arsenals. The incident also prompted calls for an international investigation, but Israel has rejected the idea. Israel has said it has the right to conduct its own investigation, perhaps with limited foreign observation.

Israel has sought to portray the nine activists killed on the flotilla as militants, said they prepared for the fight before boarding. The military Monday released the names of five of the activists it said have long-standing ties to terror organizations. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu late Sunday released a statement saying he discussed the international criticism with world leaders, including the premier of Canada. Mr. Netanyahu told them any country would act in self defence if it were targeted by thousands of rockets as Israel had been by Gaza militants. Mr. Netanyahu told his Cabinet earlier Sunday that “dozens of thugs” from “an extremist, terrorism-supporting” organization had readied themselves for the arrival of the naval commandos. He said they organized and boarded the ship separately from the other activists with a clear hostile intent. Video released by the military have shown a crowd of men attacking several naval commandos as they landed on a ship from a helicopter, beating the soldiers with clubs and other objects and hurling one soldier overboard. On Saturday, Israel commandeered another aid ship without incident. All 19 activists, including a Nobel Peace laureate, and crew were deported Sunday.

“The bloody escalation today is a desperate attempt by the occupation government to divert the world attention away from the massacre committed against the flotilla,” Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri told reporters on Monday in Gaza. (The Associated Press)

Israeli Foreign Ministry official Yigal Palmour said the latest incident reinforced the need for Israel to maintain a tight cordon around Gaza. “This is the explanation why the border, both land and sea border with Gaza need to be strictly and tightly controlled. We can’t allow Hamas to carry out attacks at will on Israelis, on Israeli territory, he told Reuters TV.

On Monday, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Israel should agree to the probe proposed by United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. Davutoglu said: “Otherwise, it means that they have something to hide… The international community is facing a serious test. Does a country have the right to intercept a ship in international waters or not?” (CBC)

The flotilla raid has strained relations between Israel and Turkey. The Turks have said they will reduce military and trade ties with Israel, and they’ve threatened to break relations unless Israel apologizes for the actions.

An Egyptian security official declared the blockade of Gaza a failure Monday and said his country will keep its border with the Palestinian territory open indefinitely. Keeping that crossing point open long term would ease the blockade. It also restores a link to the outside world for some Gaza’s 1.5 million Palestinians. Egypt opened its border with Gaza soon after the flotilla raid. Israel has not publicly protested the Egyptian move, but officials declined to comment Monday.

Vice President Joe Biden said Monday the U.S. is closely consulting with Egypt and other allies to find new ways to “address the humanitarian, economic, security, and political aspects of the situation in Gaza.” (The Associated Press) They had a 90-minute meeting “about a full range of bilateral issues,” a spokesman for the US Embassy said, but there were no further details of the discussions released. (BBC) Biden said that the Israelis and Palestinians needed to “move to direct negotiations as soon as possible that will result in an end to the occupation that began in 1967 and to a two-state solution to the conflict with Israel and a Palestinian state living in peace and security.” (CNN) He issued the statement after meeting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh.

Egypt’s measures up to now constitute an incremental change rather than a radically different approach to the border closure. It appeared aimed, in part, at defusing some of the anger in the Arab and Muslim world over Egypt’s role in maintaining the blockade. For the time being, Egypt is only allowing a very restricted group of Gazans to leave the territory, including medical patients, students attending foreign universities and those with residency abroad. In keeping the passenger terminal in the border town of Rafah open continually, rather than sporadically as before, Egypt is helping reduce the backlog of Gazans with the required permits waiting to get out.

Egypt and Israel have maintained the blockade since Hamas took control of Gaza in 2007, with Israel describing it as an essential measure to stop weapons from reaching Hamas militants, who have hit southern Israel with rockets and in the past years killed hundreds in suicide bombings. The Egyptian security official said, however, that the closure has failed to achieve its goals, including the release of an Israeli soldier held by Hamas since 2006. Israeli airstrikes and Egyptian security efforts have also yet to choke off a bustling smuggling trade that uses hundreds of tunnels along the Gaza-Egypt border, though the official said Egypt is determined to shut them down.

Under the restrictions at the Rafah crossing point, Egypt is letting some humanitarian aid but will not transfer large cargo shipments or construction material because the terminal is designed primarily as a crossing for travelers, said the Egyptian official.

Hamas welcomed the Egyptian move but said it hoped all Gazans would soon be able to travel freely without restrictions. “We have said since the first day that the blockade on Gaza will end and we can see that on the ground right now, and we voice our hope that all other restrictions will be removed,” Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said. (The Associated Press) Hamas tightly controls access to Rafah, and only travelers with the proper permits can reach the terminal.

For its part, Israel allows through only basic humanitarian goods, blocking crucial items like cement needed to rebuild war damage because it argues the material could be used by Hamas. The closure has crushed Gaza’s already fragile economy. There has been no formal response from Jerusalem so far.

France and Britain have called for Israel to accept a “credible and transparent” investigation into the deadly Israeli raid on May 31. (BBC) French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner suggested that the EU could play a bigger role to ensure that humanitarian supplies reached Gaza, and that weapons were kept out. Mr. Kouchner also said Europe needed to work harder to convince Israel that its blockade of Gaza was not working, and nor was it in the long-term interests of the region. His comments followed talks with British counterpart William Hague, who said Europe would maintain pressure on Israel. On Sunday, Mr. Kouchner said “We can check the cargo of ships heading toward Gaza – we can do it, we want to do it, we would gladly do it,” Mr. Kouchner said. (New York Times)

Meanwhile, the Iranian Red Crescent has announced it will send two aid ships to Egypt for onward delivery to Gaza through the Rafah crossing later this week, Iranian state media report. Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said the Iranian ships will be part of a new aid flotilla organized by several Islamic countries, though he declined to say which countries are involved. He called it “strictly a humanitarian effort for the people of Gaza. We are preparing two ships to head for Gaza that will provide humanitarian aid. Their departure depends on how soon we coordinate with other countries that are also sending aid ships. The process of organizing the operation is under way.” (CNN)

Separately, a “Jewish boat” is planning to try to reach Gaza, two pro-Palestinian European Jewish groups announced Monday. “Our purpose is to call an end to the siege of Gaza, to this illegal collective punishment of the whole civilian population,” Edith Lutz said on behalf of European Jews for a Just Peace in the Near East and Jews for Justice for Palestinians. The group is not saying when the boat is sailing or where it is leaving from “in order to avoid sabotage,” Lutz said. (CNN)

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