Trying to limit damage, Israel drops plans to prosecute activists detained in high-seas raid

JERUSALEM (AP) — In an attempt to limit the diplomatic damage from its deadly raid on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla, Israel dropped plans Wednesday to prosecute dozens of pro-Palestinian activists, opting instead to deport them all immediately.

The stunning reversal came as Israel faced increasingly sharp international condemnation for Monday's high-seas raid that ended when Israeli commandos killed nine activists. The outcry included accusations of war crimes and a decision by Nicaragua to break diplomatic relations with Israel over the raid.

But Israeli officials said the decision not to prosecute any of the activists — despite suspicions that they were sent to attack Israeli forces on the ship — was primarily an attempt to control the damage to Israel's relations with Turkey, an unofficial sponsor of the flotilla. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were discussing sensitive diplomatic issues.

Israel is anxious to patch up ties with Ankara because it is the Jewish state's most important Muslim ally. At least four of the nine killed were Turkish and the ship Israel attacked was Turkish. Israel ordered families of its diplomats out of that country a day after Ankara branded the raid a "massacre."

Turkish lawmakers continued to express their outrage Wednesday, calling on their government to review its political, military and economic ties with Israel. The lawmakers also said Israel must formally apologize for the raid, compensate the victims and bring those responsible to justice.

In a step aimed at calming the furious response, Israel said Wednesday it planned to deport all the activists by the end of the day.

That would include about 50 of the nearly 700 activists on the ships who Israel said were apparently linked to the world jihad movement and possibly al-Qaida. Israel accused the suspects of attacking Israeli troops rappelling onto one of the ships and beating them with iron rods, clubs and knives. Originally, Israel planned on detaining them in Israel while police looked into possible charges.

But Israeli Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein said in a statement Wednesday that all the activists would be deported, including the 50 suspects. The statement said that "keeping them here would do more damage to the country's vital interests than good."

Israeli Cabinet Minister Isaac Herzog said the expulsions were an attempt to dampen criticism of Israel.

"We are trying to take full control of this crisis management and move forward," Herzog told The Associated Press, while indicating that Israel would reject calls from the U.N. and others for an independent inquiry. "We are the last nation (that) you can say doesn't check itself," he said.

Herzog defended Israel's blockade of Gaza, saying weapons Hamas could receive by sea could be used "against Israel and the region."

International envoy Tony Blair told The Associated Press that Israel should ease the blockade and let more supplies in. He said the blockade was "counterproductive," but said it would be hard to lift it because of Israel's objections.

Israel instructed the families of its diplomats stationed in Turkey to return to Israel immediately because of noisy demonstrations at the Israeli embassy and consulate and the high level of Turkish outrage over the raid.

In another bizarre twist, Israel unloaded supplies from the six boats commandeered during the raid and sent some of the goods toward Gaza, only to see the blockaded territory's Hamas rulers refuse to accept them.

Israeli security officials said they had loaded 20 trucks with equipment that was on the ships, including wheelchairs, toys, clothes and medicine. They said contrary to earlier claims, there was no cement on board.

The Hamas minister of social affairs, Ahmad al-Kurd, accused Israel of keeping batteries for the wheelchairs and withholding tons of cement carried by the flotilla. He said the government would not accept the aid until Israel frees everything confiscated from the ships, but later said the aid would be picked up when all detainees were released.

Hanin Zoabi, an Arab lawmaker who sailed with the activists, was heckled when she took the podium in the Israeli parliament Wednesday.

"Go to Gaza, you traitor," Miri Regev, a lawmaker in the ruling Likud Party and former Israeli military spokeswoman, screamed in Arabic.

Despite the outcry over the raid, the Palestinians were resuming indirect peace talks with Israel Wednesday through U.S. envoy George Mitchell.


Associated Press writers Karin Laub in Jerusalem and Selcan Hacaoglu in Ankara, Turkey, contributed to this report.