An Israeli naval raid on a flotilla bent on breaking its blockade of the Gaza Strip with a cargo of humanitarian supplies is sparking an international diplomatic crisis for the Jewish state after at least 10 activists were killed and dozens wounded in clashes with soldiers.
Israel, meanwhile, is bracing for the negative fallout.
"It will have a huge impact," says Alon Liel, a former Israeli diplomat. Mr. Liel said the incident could undermine peace talks with the Palestinians and lead to a freeze in relations with Turkey. "It’s a red light to the Israeli government that, if now you didn't understand, you are in the wrong direction.''
Israel on the defensive
Israel's right-wing government has been on the defensive on several fronts since taking office in early 2009.
It has been under pressure from the US to rein in settlement expansion to promote fledgling peace talks with the Palestinian Authority, and the United Nations's Goldstone panel has accused the Israeli army of carrying out war crimes against Gaza civilians in a three-week offensive to snuff out Hamas rocket fire.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak called on world leaders to exercise restraint in their response to the incident.
"The entire flotilla is a political and media provocation by anti-Israeli activists," said Defense Minister Ehud Barak at a press conference in Tel Aviv. "They have absolutely nothing to do with humanitarian aid."
The Gaza blockade
Israeli officials said that when the flotilla ignored calls from its naval forces to respect its closure of Gaza's territorial waters, soldiers boarded the ships from helicopters and from naval sea craft. The army said commandos encountered unexpectedly violent resistance from activists armed with knives, metal clubs, and live weapons on the Marmara, a ship with 600 activists.
There was no immediate response from the activists after the Israeli military jammed communications at the beginning of the operation around 4 a.m. After Israel's army evacuated the injured to Israeli hospitals, the ships were forced to sail to the port of Ashdod, where officials were waiting to deport the activists.
The six-ship flotilla – the biggest attempt to bust the Gaza blockade in nearly two years of attempts – is sharpening public criticism of Israel over its three-year blockade of the coastal territory of 1.5 million Palestinians.
Israel has justified the blockade as necessary to prevent a weapons build up and argued that there's no humanitarian crisis in Gaza, while critics argue it amounts to using collective punishment to pressure Hamas.
Violation of international law?
Hamas, which has controlled the Gaza Strip since 2007, condemned Israel's storming of the flotilla – which took place in international waters – as a violation of international law and called on the United Nations Security Council to discuss the incident.
The Islamic militant organization, which the US, Israel, and the European Union consider a terrorist group, would get a political boost if international support for Israel's blockade eroded. Palestinian Authority negotiator Saeb Erekat was unavailable for comment.
A spokesman for the White House expressed regret at the loss of life and said that it was reviewing the incident.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy condemned "the disproportionate use of force" against the flotilla, the Associated Press reported. "All light must be shed on the circumstances of this tragedy, which underlines the urgency of resuming peace talks," he said in a statement.
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