Pro-Palestinian activists sent another boat to challenge Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip on Tuesday and Egypt declared it was temporarily opening a crossing into the Palestinian territory after a raid on an aid flotilla that ended with Israeli soldiers killing nine activists.
The raid provoked ferocious international condemnation of Israel, raised questions at home, and appeared likely to increase pressure to end the blockade that has deepened the poverty of the 1.5 million Palestinians in the strip. Turkey, which unofficially supported the flotilla, has led the criticism, calling the Israeli raid a “bloody massacre.”
Amid the increasing tensions, the Israeli military said it carried out an airstrike in Gaza on Tuesday, and an Islamic militant group said three of its members were killed after firing rockets into southern Israel. Israeli authorities say the rockets landed in open areas and caused no injuries.
Two militants infiltrating into Israel from Gaza were killed in a separate incident Tuesday, the military said.
The pro-Palestinian flotilla had been headed to Gaza with tens of thousands of tons of aid that Israel bans from Gaza. After days of warnings, Israel intercepted the flotilla under the cover of darkness early Monday, setting off a violent melee that left nine activists dead and dozens of people, including seven soldiers, wounded. Most of the dead were believed to be Turks.
Israel said 679 people were arrested, and about 50 of those had left the country voluntarily. Hundreds who refused to cooperate remained jailed and subject to deportation.
Israel says the Gaza blockade is needed to prevent the Iranian-backed Hamas, which has fired thousands of rockets into the Jewish state, from building up its arsenal. It also wants to pressure Hamas to free an Israeli soldier it has held for four years.
Critics say the blockade has failed to weaken Hamas but further strapped an already impoverished economy. It also has prevented Gaza from rebuilding after a devastating Israeli military offensive early last year.
Egypt, which has enforced the blockade with Israel since Hamas militants seized control of Gaza in 2007, said it was opening the border for several days to allow aid into the area.
The governor of Egyptian’s northern Sinai district, Murad Muwafi, said it was a humanitarian gesture meant to “alleviate the suffering of our Palestinian brothers after the Israeli attack.”
Several thousand Gazans made a furious rush to the Egyptian border, hoping to take advantage of a rare chance to escape the blockaded territory.
Cars with suitcases piled on their roofs streamed to the border, while many others lugged overstuffed bags on foot. Dozens of Hamas police with automatic weapons are patrolling the area to maintain order.
“We are working to help residents take advantage of this opportunity,” said Hamas Interior Ministry spokesman Ihab Ghussein. “We hope it will be open all the time, not just as a response to yesterday’s events.”
Greta Berlin said the Free Gaza Movement, which organized the flotilla, would not be deterred and that another cargo boat was off the coast of Italy en route to Gaza. A second boat carrying about three dozen passengers is expected to join it, Berlin said. She said the two boats would arrive in the region late this week or early next week.
“This initiative is not going to stop,” she said from the group’s base in Cyprus. “We think eventually Israel will get some kind of common sense. They’re going to have to stop the blockade of Gaza, and one of the ways to do this is for us to continue to send the boats.”
Protests have erupted in a number of Muslim countries including Turkey, which unofficially supported the flotilla, Indonesia and Malaysia, where a Palestinian man slashed himself outside the American Embassy.
Israeli commandos rappelled on ropes from a helicopter one by one and army videos showed them being attacked by angry activists with metal rods and one soldier being thrown off the ship. Others jumped overboard to escape the angry mob. Israeli authorities said they were attacked by knives, clubs and live fire from two pistols wrested from soldiers. The soldiers then opened fire, killing nine.
Israeli military analysts said it was a mistake to send commandos to board the ship and the military could have used non-lethal weapons such as tear gas. They also said the intelligence-gathering was faulty.
Retired Gen. Shlomo Brom asked why the ships’ engines weren’t sabotaged instead.
“There were certain objectives to this operation. One was not to let the vessels get to Gaza, but the other objective was to do it without any damage to Israel’s image,” Brom told The Associated Press. “Certainly it failed.”
The daily Maariv, in a front-page headline, called the raid a “debacle.”
Sabine Haddad, spokeswoman for the Israeli Interior Ministry, said 679 people were arrested and handed deportation orders. By midafternoon Tuesday, some 50 people had left the country voluntarily. But hundreds refused to cooperate and were sent to jail.
“The rest said they wanted to go to jail and are at Beersheba jail going through a process of deportation,” she said. She said judges were hearing the cases and that almost everyone would be expelled within the next few days.
She said more than half of those arrested were from Turkey, with others coming from more than 30 other countries, including Britain, Algeria, Jordan, Kuwait, Germany and the U.S. Israeli police said four Arab Israeli citizens would face criminal charges.
Israel did not allow access to the activists, but a handful who were deported arrived home Tuesday, including a Turkish woman and her 1-year-old son, six Greeks and three German lawmakers.
“There was a massacre on board,” said the woman, Nilufer Cetin, whose husband, Ekrem, is the ship’s engineer and was still in Israeli custody. “The ship turned into a lake of blood.”
Turkey said it was sending three ambulance planes to Israel to return 20 Turkish activists injured in the operation and had other aircraft ready to get other activists. About 400 Turks took part in the flotilla.
The flotilla was the ninth attempt by sea to breach the blockade Israel and Egypt imposed after Hamas violently seized the territory. Israel allowed five seaborne aid shipments through but snapped the blockade shut after its 2009 war in Gaza.
There was little call in Israel for an end to the blockade. Israelis have little sympathy for Gaza, which sent thousands of rockets and mortar rounds crashing into Israel for years before last year’s war.
Tensions along the Israeli-Gaza border were tense following the naval raid.
The Iranian-backed Islamic Jihad said three of its fighters were killed Tuesday shortly after firing rockets into southern Israel. Israeli authorities say the rockets landed in open areas and caused no injuries.
The Israeli military confirmed its airstrike, and Gaza’s chief medical examiner also said there were three deaths.
On Tuesday morning, the Israeli military said Gaza militants infiltrated Israel and exchanged fire with troops. Israeli rescue services said two militants were killed, but the military would not immediately confirm that.