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Israel will hold on to the six ships from the international flotilla that sought to break Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip at least until it completes its investigation into a deadly raid on one of the vessels, the Defense Ministry said Wednesday.

Israel towed the boats to a northern port days after naval commandos stormed the ships, killing nine Turkish activists on board the lead vessel. Some boats remain moored in Haifa port with cargoes of cement and steel still on board, a Defense Ministry spokesman said.

Although Israel has said the soldiers acted in self defense, the bloodshed provoked an international outcry that forced Israel to ease its Gaza blockade.

But it has rebuffed pressure from the United Nations and Turkey to agree to an international inquiry. Instead, it has formed its own commission, headed by a retired Israeli Supreme Court Justice Yaakov Turkel, to conduct a limited investigation of the raid. Its deliberations are expected to take months.

“One thing is certain. Nothing will be done with these ships until after the Turkel inquiry because they might want to inspect them,” Defense Ministry spokesman Shlomo Dror said.

On Sunday, Channel 10 TV showed footage of Israeli fisherman fishing off the flotilla’s Turkish lead ship, the Mavi Marmara. All the deaths during the raid took place on that vessel, where activists clashed with the commandos. Each side has accused the other of attacking first.

The raid has battered already strained relations between Israel and Turkey, once a strong ally in the Muslim world.

Ceylam Ozem, a spokeswoman for the Turkish Embassy in Tel Aviv, said her government has asked “from day one” for the ships to be returned. “They are Turkish owned. The Israelis have still not answered our demand,” she said.

Israel, along with Egypt, imposed the blockade on Gaza after the Islamic militant Hamas, which has killed hundreds of Israelis, violently wrested control of Gaza in 2007.

Hamas authorities on Wednesday arrested five suspected collaborators with Israel in a campaign against informers in the Gaza Strip, a Hamas security official said. The overnight arrest raids began three months after two collaborators were executed.

Collaboration is viewed as an especially serious offense in Palestinian society.

The Hamas official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the arrests.

In another sign of Hamas’ stranglehold on the territory, the group said it blocked what would have been the first shipment of West Bank newspapers since the group’s June 2007 takeover.

The West Bank, run by rivals of Hamas, has banned Hamas newspapers since 2007.

Also Wednesday, the United Nations said in a new report that Israel’s West Bank separation barrier is making it increasingly difficult for Palestinians living nearby to reach farm lands or health services.

Farmers who own land in the area between the barrier and the Israeli frontier have to pass through gates and need to obtain special permits from the Israeli military.

The U.N. said the permits are increasingly difficult to obtain and the 57 gates are not always open. This has “severely curtailed agricultural practice and undermined rural livelihoods,” the report said.

Israel started building the barrier in 2003 after a series of Palestinian suicide attacks that killed hundreds of Israelis. Israel says the barrier remains an important security element.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor rejected the report. “We have already enough proof that (the U.N.) would much rather see more bombings on Israeli territory than acknowledge that anything Israel does to prevent these attacks could be legitimate,” he said.

In July 2004, the International Court of Justice said in an advisory ruling that the barrier must be tore down because it runs through occupied land. Israel rejected that. AP

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