Middle East

Israel Deports Activists From Gaza-Bound Flotilla

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There is more fallout in Israel from Monday's commando raid on a humanitarian aid ship that left nine pro-Palestinian protesters dead. Israel is releasing and deporting nearly 700 international activists who were on board the ships carrying relief supplies destined for the Gaza Strip.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Let's go next to Israel, which has started deporting the roughly 700 activists who were detained from a flotilla of ships that tried to breach the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip. Israel's move comes as the country faces increasing international criticism.

We're going to get the latest from reporter Sheera Frenkel in Jerusalem. Welcome to the program.

SHEERA FRENKEL: Hi. Good morning.

INSKEEP: Just to be clear here, is everyone who was arrested and who survived going to be released here?

FRENKEL: Israel is saying that everyone that was arrested - all 700-something people - will be deported from the country.

INSKEEP: And that includes, I suppose, journalists, activists, a wide range of people from a number of nations.

FRENKEL: It does, and it includes all future people who try to breach the Israeli blockade on the Gaza Strip. Israel is sending a very clear message here, that they don't want to see future flotillas attempt to breach this naval blockade.

INSKEEP: They don't want to see future attempts, but apparently some are already on the way. We understand two other boats are making their way toward Gaza now.

FRENKEL: Yes. There are two boats that are already at sea. Those boats are moving very slowly and won't be arriving or expected to arrive some time next week. But activists are saying that they're planning a second flotilla that's going to be even larger for some time in July. So I think this is just the beginning of efforts to try and bring attention to Israel's blockade of Gaza.

INSKEEP: And do the Israelis indicate how they're going to respond to these additional flotillas?

FRENKEL: They have. Israel has said that they will actually respond in like. That being said, there is a lot of criticism here - internal criticism and external criticism - of the decision-making process of behind sending a naval commando unit aboard a ship full of civilians. However, Israel has said they will deploy the same naval commando unit on future ships, despite the international criticism of how Israel handled this.

INSKEEP: Now, let's remember here the basic facts and allegations: The Israelis stopped this flotilla that was carrying what people said was humanitarian aid to Gaza. The Israeli commandos boarded some of the ships, there was some kind of violence. A number of people were killed. Are you saying that the Israelis are in a political situation and a diplomatic situation where if the same thing happened again, they would be prepared to take the criticism for that?

FRENKEL: It appears to be the case. I mean, despite the very strong and severe international criticism of how Israel handled this, what we're hearing from military and foreign ministry officials here is that they will continue to use the same policies to stop further ships with the same level of force. That being said, we're beginning to see some sort of domestic debate on this.

In a poll today, more than 60 percent of Israelis said that they should have handled it differently. That may have an effect, and Israel may choose to reconsider. But at current time, they're saying that they will stay the course.

INSKEEP: Well, let's get a little more on that. You said 60 percent of Israelis are indicating that they wished that the situation had been handled differently. What does the debate sound like, the public debate feel like, as you move about Israel?

FRENKEL: You're just today starting to hear criticism of the decision-making process behind using the naval commandos. They're questioning the decision by Defense Minister Ehud Barak. He was the one that actually made the call to send the naval commandos. The prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, was in Canada at the time making his way to Washington, D.C.

So people here are asking whether Ehud Barak shouldn't be asked to possibly even resign from his post due to this fiasco. And they're asking whether the prime minister should not have been more involved in such an important decision-making process.

INSKEEP: Does Israel's public seem to continue to support Israel's policy of isolating Gaza as completely as possible, so long as it is controlled by Hamas?

FRENKEL: Yes. The Israeli public continues to support the blockade on Gaza, despite international criticism, and what a lot of experts here are saying sort of a failed effort. Israel first imposed the blockade in June 2007 as a response to Hamas taking over the Gaza Strip. And on a unofficial level, they had hoped that the blockade would lessen support for Hamas and help dissidents in the Gaza Strip.

But that hasn't been the case. Hamas's support in Gaza has only continued to grow. And so while some experts, namely people abroad, are questioning whether Israel shouldn't reconsider that policy, domestically, most Israelis are still supporting a blockade.

INSKEEP: Sheera Frenkel, thanks very much.

FRENKEL: Thank you.

INSKEEP: She spoke with us from Jerusalem where she's monitoring events after an Israeli commando raid on a flotilla of ships headed for Gaza. And we're told that more ships are heading in the same direction.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.

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