Arrests of EU citizens fuel outrage over Israeli attack on aid flotilla
EU ambassadors late on Monday (31 May) condemned Israel for its "use of violence" against a flotilla carrying humanitarian aid to the Palestinian territories and asked for "urgent" consular access to EU citizens arrested on board the ships.
"The EU condemns the use of violence that has produced a high number of victims among the members of the flotilla and demands an immediate, full and impartial inquiry into the events and the circumstances surrounding them," the final wording of the statement, agreed after four hours of talks among the EU diplomats, said.
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The call for an "impartial" inquiry is the compromise wording between member states who wanted a tougher stance, closer to the international investigation requested by Arab states, and Israel's long-standing allies, who pressed for a milder version. It is however a step further than calling for an Israeli internal inquiry, as requested on Monday morning by EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.
Israeli commandos killed at least nine people after storming a Turkish-flagged aid ship on Monday morning. The six ships, part of the Free Gaza Movement, were heading to the Palestinian territory in an attempt to breach the land and sea embargo imposed by Israel in 2007, when a dispute between Fatah and Hamas, the rival Palestinian factions, divided the two occupied territories.
Activists said Israeli naval commandos stormed the ships after ordering them to stop in international waters, about 130 kilometers from Gaza's coast.
Israel has meanwhile released video footage showing people attacking the troops with sticks and rods amid claims that the boatmen opened fire first. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed "regret" for the loss of life but said the soldiers "had to defend themselves, defend their lives, or they would have been killed."
With several EU countries having citizens on board the convoy and without information on their whereabouts after the Israeli arrests, the EU statement also urged Tel Aviv "to urgently provide member states with consular access to and information about their citizens."
The legal implication of seizing EU citizens in international waters are unclear at this stage. Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt said the Israeli intervention was "incompatible" with international law, while his Irish counterpart Michael Martin accused Israel of "essentially kidnapping" Irish citizens.
"These people did not enter Israel illegally. They were essentially kidnapped from international waters, taken into Israel, and asked to sign documents confirming that they entered illegally. That is unacceptable," he said, according to the Irish Times.
Mr Martin added that he had conveyed the government's "dismay and condemnation" that the Irish ambassador to Israel had been denied consular access to those held in the prison of Ashdod.
Seven Irish passport holders were still in Israeli custody on Tuesday morning.
On Tuesday morning, Israel began the deportations of a few dozen of the 480 activists. Among the passengers on the ships were Nobel Peace Laureate Mairead Maguire and former UN assistant secretary-general Denis Halliday. Swedish author Henning Mankell was also on board, along with the controversial Swedish-Israeli artist Dror Feiler, the chairman of the Swedish group Jews for Israeli-Palestinian peace.
According to media reports, 30 Greek citizens, 28 Britons, ten Germans, ten Swedes, five Belgians and three Spaniards had boarded the ships.
A spokeswoman for the Free Gaza Movement, which organized the flotilla, said the group's goal - beyond just bringing supplies to the impoverished territory - was to shatter the blockade.
"What we're trying to do is open a sea lane between Gaza and the rest of the world," Greta Berlin said in Cyprus. "We're not trying to be a humanitarian mission. We're trying to say to the world, 'You have no right to imprison a million and a half Palestinians.'"
The Turkish government, which supported the convoy, called the raid "murder conducted by a state" and the arrests an act of "piracy." Ankara has called an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council, whose rotating chairmanship it holds.
Similarly to the EU, the UN also called for an "impartial" inquiry into the events.