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Gaza aid flotilla activists arrive in Turkey

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Flotilla activists return to Turkey
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Over 400 activists from aid mission to Gaza arrive in Turkey
  • Activists challenging blockade intercepted at sea by Israeli forces; 9 activists killed
  • Israeli Prime Minister: Activists were aboard "boat of hatred"
  • More aid convoys planned for Gaza

Istanbul, Turkey (CNN) -- Three Turkish Airlines planes carrying 466 activists and nine bodies landed Thursday morning in Istanbul, marking the end of the activists' involvement in a humanitarian mission to aid Gaza that went tragically awry, an official said.

Their numbers included several wounded people, and their arrival occurred several hours after they departed from Tel Aviv, Israel, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc told CNN.

Most of the passengers were Turks, who made up the majority of the activists whose mission to challenge the Israeli blockade and deliver medicines, wheelchairs and building materials to Gaza turned into a bloodbath Monday morning in international waters off Gaza and sparked worldwide recriminations against Israel.

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defended Israel's actions even as other activists vowed to carry out more such efforts.

Video: Israeli spokesman responds
Video: Israeli commando discusses attack
Video: Flotilla passengers speak out
Map: Gaza flotilla intercepted
Gallery: Gaza aid convoy
RELATED TOPICS
  • Israel
  • Gaza
  • Turkey
  • Hamas

Netanyahu said the goal of the international flotilla had been to penetrate Israel's blockade of Gaza, which he said was needed to halt the shipment of weapons from Iran to militants in Gaza.

Speaking in a nationally televised address, Netanyahu said the state has the responsibility to stop every vessel bound for Gaza, including the flotilla that was targeted Monday.

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"That was not a love boat. That was a boat of hatred. It was not a peaceful flotilla. The soldiers who boarded the ships were attacked by clubs, batons and knives."

Netanyahu said that Iran continues to smuggle weapons into Gaza, and that Hamas, which controls the territory, continues to arm itself.

As he spoke, another ship packed with activists and humanitarian supplies sailed defiantly toward the Palestinian territory and another feared confrontation with an Israeli military braced for trouble.

The Rachel Corrie, named for an American activist killed in Gaza several years ago, was expected to arrive late Friday or early Saturday in Gaza. The vessel left Ireland laden with 550 tons of cement, educational materials, toys and medical equipment -- the latest effort by peace activists to deliver humanitarian goods and break Israel's blockade of Gaza.

How has the world reacted to the raid?

The Irish government asked that Israel not interfere with the Irish-owned ship.

But an Israeli government official who spoke on background because of the diplomatic sensitivity of the issue told CNN "the Israeli government is offering to receive the ship's cargo, as it has offered other vessels, if it docks at [Israel's] Ashdod port. The Israeli government will unload the cargo, screen it, and deliver it to Gaza."

That was the same deal rejected by the flotilla of six ships before Israeli commandos attacked one of them Monday.

But an Israeli government official who spoke on background because of the diplomatic sensitivity of the issue told CNN "the Israeli government is offering to receive the ship's cargo, as it has offered other vessels, if it docks at [Israel's] Ashdod port. The Israeli government will unload the cargo, screen it, and deliver it to Gaza."

Q&A: Aid and Israel's Gaza blockade

Free Gaza Movement activist Derek Graham said that the plan was for the Rachel Corrie to be unloaded in Gaza and then return to Ireland.

More such attempts may be on the horizon. The European Campaign to End Siege on Gaza announced Wednesday it has enough money to fund three more ships in a new fleet to Gaza.

An attempt by Israel to deliver the goods from the flotilla that was stopped Monday was rejected, the Israel Defense Forces said Wednesday.

Palestinian sources confirmed that trucks that arrived from Israel at the Rafah terminal at the Israel-Gaza border were barred from delivering the aid.

Ra'ed Fatooh, in charge of the crossings, and Jamal Khudari, head of a committee against the Gaza blockade, laid out the following conditions for the aid to be accepted: Israel must release all flotilla detainees, and representatives of the Free Gaza Movement, which organized the flotilla, must deliver it.

Israel had released all foreign flotilla detainees by Wednesday, but four Israeli Arabs remained in custody.

The commando raid that led to the deaths of nine people and the wounding of many more early Monday continued to draw international condemnation Wednesday, sparking outrage in the streets of capitals across the world. Demonstrators also decried Israel's ongoing blockade of Gaza.

The Carter Center in the United States, founded by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter to advance human rights and alleviate suffering, condemned the attack as "unprovoked and illegal."

"These tragic deaths are a terrible reminder that the failed policy of besieging Gaza mainly hurts civilians," Carter said Wednesday in a statement. He called on the International Quartet comprising the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia to "urgently agree on a mechanism to end the closure of Gaza, reunite the Palestinian factions, and permit unification of Palestinian people in their social and political life."

In Nicaragua, Managua announced it was suspending relations with Israel.

In Saudi Arabia, the Organization of Islamic Conference, a group representing Muslim nations, was to discuss the incident at the Foreign Ministry level.

"For years, many in the international community have been complicit in a policy that aimed at isolating Gaza in the hope of weakening Hamas," said the International Crisis Group, the think tank that denounced the Israeli action.

"This policy is morally appalling and politically self-defeating. It has harmed the people of Gaza without loosening Hamas' control. Yet it has persisted regardless of evident failure."

Turkey officials, who saw their citizens among Monday's casualties, were seething. The country's prime minister launched strong rhetoric against the Jewish state -- a onetime close ally -- and its ambassador has been yanked from Tel Aviv.

Turkish officials have called for Israel to end the Gaza blockade.

In the first known military fallout from the action, a U.S. official said Turkey will cancel a trilateral military exercise with the United States and Israel set for August in the eastern Mediterranean Sea.

Attorneys for a Muslim humanitarian group have filed a petition asking Turkish prosecutors to sue Israel for murder.

The Gaza problem is setting off security alarms and stirring moral consternation among many Israelis, who see themselves torn over how to approach the issues in that territory.

Many among Israel's government and citizenry are concerned that lifting the blockade will allow militant groups intent on staging attacks against Israelis to replenish their stocks of weapons. At the same time, many Israelis have long been disturbed about the dire living conditions in Gaza.

The Israeli state attorney general's office, in a response to the High Court on two petitions regarding the flotilla, defended the Israeli actions Wednesday. It said the "Hamas terrorist organization" controls Gaza and is intent on deliberately assaulting civilians.

As a result, Israel has worked to thwart the infiltration of weapons and ordnance from tunnels between Egypt and Gaza and has imposed a naval blockade on Gaza to stop the weapons smuggling.

"The blockade is not intended to harm residents of the Strip," the office said. "It is designed to prevent direct and free access to the Gaza Strip, not via Israel, in order to thwart, minimize, block and hinder the Gaza Strip from becoming a giant arsenal for the terrorist organizations to use in deliberately targeting Israelis in the framework of murderous terrorist actions that have been perpetrated over the years."

After Monday's attack, the Israeli government detained around 600 flotilla passengers and held them at the Beer Sheva prison.

On Wednesday, all foreign detainees had been taken to Ben Gurion Airport for flights to their various homes. Four Israeli Arab activists on the flotilla, however, remained in Israeli custody; a judge on Monday night remanded them until June 8.

As for the Rachel Corrie, the Free Gaza Movement said customs officials and a senator from the Irish Green Party inspected the vessel and found no weapons. Five Irish and six Malaysians were on the boat, whose paid crew included a Briton, a Cuban and six Filipinos.

The IDF on Wednesday released a 2½-minute edited video that it said was shot from cameras aboard one of the boats.

A time stamp on the silent video shows its first scenes beginning at 9:36 p.m. Sunday and its final scenes ending at 5:04 a.m. Monday, when the IDF says the "rioters initiate confrontation with IDF soldiers."

At one point, the video shows about 10 people milling about on the deck; then shows them wearing life jackets. Several of the people are carrying what appear to be poles.

The video is covered by an English-language written description of what the Israelis say is going on -- including the assertion that some of the people depicted are holding slingshots and metal poles and that one is holding a broken bottle. But the video quality is poor and those statements could not be independently confirmed.

Several of the people appear to don gas masks. At one point, a person appears to throw something off the ship. No IDF soldiers can be seen.

Asked about possible additional footage confiscated by the IDF from the activists, the IDF did not respond. The video can be seen at http://ht.ly/17ACaW

CNN's Yesim Comert and Jill Dougherty contributed to this story from Istanbul.

 
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