Hundreds of activists deported from Israel following a bloody raid by Israeli commandos on a pro-Palestinian flotilla returned to a hero's welcome in Turkey early Thursday. Nine bodies were on the first plane.
Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc and several Turkish lawmakers welcomed them at the airport after Turkey pressured Israel to release the detainees, most of whom are Turkish. Others were from Arab countries, Europe and the United States.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who also greeted the activists, called for an international investigation into the raid.
"They faced barbarism and oppression but returned with pride," Arinc said.
A few thousand jubilant relatives and supporters, waving Palestinian and Turkish flags, burst into applause outside the airport, chanting "God is Great!" They later walked to the perimeters near the tarmac to see their loved ones. Another crowd celebrated their return in downtown Istanbul.
"Turkey is proud of you!" the crowd chanted as they shouted "Down with Israel!"
Three air ambulance planes carrying wounded activists had landed in Ankara earlier. They were bused to a medical center to undergo treatment, NTV television said.
'Not the Love Boat'
The flotilla aimed to break a blockade that Israel has imposed on the Gaza Strip and carry food and other supplies to the Palestinians who live there.
Earlier, Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hotly rejected calls to lift the blockade on Hamas-ruled Gaza, insisting the ban prevents missile attacks on Israel. He labeled worldwide criticism of his navy's bloody raid on a pro-Palestinian flotilla as "hypocrisy."
"This was not the 'Love Boat,'" Netanyahu said in an address to the nation, referring to the vessel boarded by commandos, setting off clashes that led to the deaths of nine activists. "It was a hate boat."
While Israeli officials spent most of the day trying to contain the flood of diplomatic condemnation of the raid, Netanyahu was anything but conciliatory in his first nationally broadcast comments since Monday's military action.
Flotilla detainees released (Photo: Avi Moalem)
"Israel is facing an attack of international hypocrisy," he said, asserting that the Jewish state is the victim of an Iran-backed campaign to arm the Hamas rulers of Gaza with missiles that could hit Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
Netanyahu said the aim of the flotilla was to break the blockade, not to bring aid to Gaza. If the blockade ended, he warned, hundreds of ships would bring in thousands of missiles from Iran, to be aimed at Israel and beyond.
The result, he said, would be an Iranian port on the Mediterranean. "The same countries that are criticizing us today should know that they would be targeted tomorrow," Netanyahu said.
Seven planes were being used to deport 527 activists to Turkey and Greece, Israeli Interior Ministry spokeswoman Sabine Haddad said. Seven other activists remained in Israeli hospitals for treatment of wounds suffered during the Israeli raid, she said.
After all the planes took off, the Israeli Foreign Ministry said three activists remained in detention over "documentation and other issues," without elaborating. The three were from Ireland, Australia and Italy.
About a dozen female activists scuffled with security officers at the airport but were quickly subdued by authorities, Israeli officials said. Officials said no charges would be filed and the women were deported as planned.
The UN, Europe and others harshly criticized Israel after its commandos stormed the six-ship flotilla in international waters, setting off the clashes. About 700 activists — including 400 Turks — were trying to break the Israeli and Egyptian naval blockade of the Gaza Strip by bringing in 10,000 tons of aid.
Turkey's parliament urged its government to review all ties with Israel as the country prepared to welcome home Turkish activists who had been detained after the raid.
US stops short of calling for blockade lift
Israel rejects claims that Gaza — which has been under an Israeli and Egyptian blockade since the Islamic militant group seized power in 2007 — is experiencing a humanitarian crisis. Israel says it allows more than enough food, medicine and supplies into the territory.
As Netanyahu rebuffed calls to lift the blockade, Cabinet Minister Isaac Herzog indicated Israel would oppose calls from the UN and others for an independent investigation of the raid.
"We are the last nation (that) you can say doesn't check itself," he told The Associated Press, while acknowledging that Israel was facing serious diplomatic trouble. "We are trying to take full control of this crisis management and move forward."
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the US is "working to improve the humanitarian conditions" in Gaza, but he also stressed the Obama administration was "greatly supportive" of Israel's security and "that's not going to change."
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton also did not call for an end to the blockade, but she pressed Israel to allow greater access to humanitarian relief supplies.
Israel's military released a video it said came from a security camera on the Mavi Marmara, the boat where the clashes took place. The video as released by the military showed well-organized men in orange life jackets, some with gas masks, brandishing iron rods and clubs, then throwing a stun grenade and attacking outnumbered Israeli soldiers.
The AP could not independently authenticate the video.
Israel says its commandos fired in self-defense.
More aid coming through
Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen has appealed to Israel to let a private Irish ship deliver its aid cargo to Gaza, but he admitted that Israel would probably block the ship because part of the cargo was concrete, which Israel bans from Gaza because it might be used by Hamas.
The 1,200-ton ship Rachel Corrie is also carrying wheelchairs and other medical supplies, organizers said. It was named after a US college student crushed to death by an Israeli army bulldozer while protesting house demolitions in Gaza. The ship was supposed to join the aid flotilla but was delayed by mechanical problems and is waiting off the Libyan coast.
Those aboard include Mairead Corrigan, a 1976 Nobel Peace Prize winner from Northern Ireland, and Denis Halliday, who previously ran UN humanitarian aid programs in Iraq.
Israel dropped plans to prosecute dozens of pro-Palestinian activists detained in the raid, opting instead to deport them all immediately in an apparent effort to limit the diplomatic damage from the raid.
"Keeping them here would do more damage to the country's vital interests than good," Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein wrote in the order.
Accounting for flotilla passengers
In Turkey, Yavuz Dede, the vice president of the Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief, alleged Israel had failed to account for all the passengers and crew on the six ships and was deliberately delaying the activists' departure to cover up the missing persons.
"We see this delay in the planes' (taking off) as an attempt to disguise the loss of people," Dede told a press conference at the foundation's Istanbul headquarters.
The Israeli Interior Ministry, however, said all those aboard the aid convoy had been accounted for. Haddad listed 702 activists being deported and seven still in Israeli hospitals. She said five were taken to the Lebanese border and repatriated there.
Turkish and Greek protesters were flying home on special planes sent by their respective governments, while others from the nearly 20 nationalities on the ships were on commercial flights. More than 120 activists from a dozen Muslim nations without diplomatic relations with Israel were deported to Jordan before sunrise.
Turkish Health Minister Recep Akdag told reporters the first plane to land carried one wounded Turkish activist, whom he identified as Imdat Avli, and one Irish activist, identified by the Irish Embassy as Almahti Alharati.
Akdag said two other air ambulance planes were on their way — one carrying nine wounded activists and the other eight. Three other planes left for Turkey early Thursday, and another took off for Greece.
The commando raid has seriously strained ties between Israel and Turkey. Turkey withdrew its ambassador, scrapped war games with Israel and demanded a UN Security Council session on the clash. Hundreds of Turks protested Israel's commando raid for a third day, and Israeli diplomats' families in Ankara began packing to leave following orders from their government.
The Turkish parliament held a heated debate on whether to impose military and economic sanctions on Israel. Lawmakers of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party objected to the measures, apparently wanting to avoid aggravating the situation, but eventually agreed on a declaration approved by a show of hands.
The lawmakers said Israel must formally apologize for the raid, pay compensation to the victims and bring those responsible to justice.
Worried about 'dramatic consequences'
Egypt on Tuesday temporarily opened the Rafah border crossing, Gaza's main gateway to the outside world. About 300 Palestinians crossed Wednesday into Egypt, while a smaller number returned to Gaza along with limited humanitarian aid, including blankets, tents and 13 power generators donated by Russia and Oman.
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega said his country was breaking diplomatic relations with Israel. British Prime Minister David Cameron urged Israel to lift the Gaza blockade, calling the raid "completely unacceptable."
Pope Benedict XVI urged both sides to resolve the problem with dialogue, telling pilgrims in St. Peter's Square that he was worried the raid would have "dramatic consequences and generate more violence."
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez criticized the muted US response to Israel's attack.
"How is it possible that Israel is allowed to do anything? This is a double standard," Chavez said.