Middle East

Israel: U.N. Will Take Seized Flotilla Goods to Gaza

June 15: Israeli soldiers in a jeep patrol near the Gaza border as a Palestinian national flag set up by protesters waves in the foreground.

June 15: Israeli soldiers in a jeep patrol near the Gaza border as a Palestinian national flag set up by protesters waves in the foreground.

JERUSALEM -- The United Nations will take to Gaza tons of aid supplies languishing in an Israeli port for two weeks since they were seized in a bloody sea confrontation, the Israeli military said Tuesday.

Richard Miron, a spokesman for the U.N. Mideast envoy, confirmed the deal. The military said the aid, taken from a six-ship Gaza-bound flotilla after nine people died in clashes, would fill 70 trucks.

Up to now, the Hamas rulers of Gaza have refused to accept the aid as a protest against Israel's three-year blockade of the territory. Hamas had no comment on the arrangement, under which the U.N. would take charge of seeing that the aid would be used in authorized humanitarian projects.

The Israeli military statement noted that Israel offered to let the flotilla land at an Israeli port, and then the aid would be transferred overland to Gaza after inspection, but flotilla organizers refused.

The May 31 raid on the flotilla, when commandos clashed with pro-Palestinian activists and killed nine, has focused world attention on the blockade and its dire effects on Gaza's 1.5 million people. Israel has been under intense international pressure to ease or lift the embargo since the clash.

With Egypt's cooperation, Israel has blockaded Gaza by land and sea since Hamas overran Gaza three years ago. The embargo has allowed in little more than food, medicine and basic humanitarian goods, causing Gaza's already depressed economy to grind to a standstill. The embargo was meant to keep weapons out, weaken the Hamas government and put pressure on the militants to release an Israeli soldier it has held for four years.

It bans building supplies like concrete from entering Gaza, saying that Hamas could use such materials to build fortifications.

In a typical week, Israel transfers about 500 truckloads of supplies to Gaza, plus 250,000 gallons of fuel for Gaza's electric power station, according to military figures.

Miron said that under the agreement, all the cargo would be sent to Gaza. He could not say whether that included items banned by Israel, including cement, but that if such items do make up part of the goods, "the U.N. will determine how and where it is used."

Neither side would say when the supplies would be taken to Gaza.

The International Committee of the Red Cross has joined a chorus of demands to lift the blockade, saying Monday that the blockade constitutes "collective punishment" in violation of international law. Although the Red Cross has repeatedly condemned the blockade, it was the first time it has explicitly declared the embargo illegal.

A key Israeli security chief warned Tuesday that lifting the blockade would endanger Israel.
Shin Bet internal security chief Yuval Diskin told a parliamentary committee that Hamas already has 5,000 rockets, most of them homemade. Others have been smuggled into Gaza and could strike deep inside Israel, he said.

Israel's top-level Security Cabinet was set to meet Wednesday to discuss easing the blockade, senior officials said. There was no word about whether decisions were expected. One proposal said to be on the table is to scrap Israel's list of permitted items and replace it with a list of goods Israel bans -- allowing all other products in.

Diskin told the parliamentary committee that Israel's security wouldn't be compromised if it were to let more goods into the territory through Israeli-controlled land crossings, according to a participant, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the meeting was closed.

Diskin warned that ending the naval blockade would be dangerous, even if international monitors were to inspect Gaza-bound ships, the meeting participant said.

On Monday, Israel approved an inquiry to look into the legal aspects of the blockade, Israel's actions and the background of the activists on board the flotilla. The appointment received some support from the U.S. and U.N., but the Palestinians and Turkey rejected it as inadequate.

Amnesty International criticized it as lacking in transparency and unlikely to ensure accountability
Israeli critics also complained that the inquiry would not look into the decision-making process that resulted in a deadly raid, seen as a propaganda victory for Hamas. On Tuesday, Israel's state comptroller, a government watchdog, said he would look into that.

The Gaza-bound flotilla -- unofficially supported by the Turkish government -- has been a boost to Turkey's popularity among Palestinians, according to a poll released Tuesday by the West Bank-based Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research.

Asked which regional country is most supportive of the Palestinians, 43 percent cited Turkey, with Egypt a distant second at 13 percent. Iran got 6 percent, followed by Saudi Arabia and Syria with 5 percent each, according the poll, which surveyed 1,270 people and quoted an error margin of 3 percentage points.