News / Middle East

    Israel Faces International Criticism for Raid on Gaza Aid Flotilla

    Israel's prime minister has canceled a visit to Washington following a raid on ships taking aid to the blockaded Gaza Strip, which left at least nine people dead.  While a White House spokesman said the United States regrets the loss of life, harsh condemnation of Israel was leveled in the rest of the world.

    White House press secretary Bill Burton issued a statement in Chicago, where U.S. President Barack Obama is spending the Memorial Day holiday with his family.

    Burton said the United States "deeply regrets the loss of life and injuries sustained" in the Israeli raid.  He added the administration is currently "working to understand the circumstances surrounding this tragedy."

    Despite the cautiousness of the statement, the outcome of the raid is likely to further complicate Israel's relations with the Obama administration.  The White House has already expressed frustration over the Israeli government's positions in the Middle East peace process.  

    Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu canceled a visit to Washington planned for Tuesday after cutting short a visit to Canada.  In Toronto, Netanyahu said Israeli commandos were ambushed with clubs and knives when they tried to board one of the vessels.  

    The Israeli military says it told the activists they would be allowed to supervise delivery of aid to Gaza overland via Israel, after a check for weapons.  Israeli diplomats are arguing that the objective of the flotilla was to boost the Hamas government in Gaza.

    But Israel is essentially alone in defending its actions.

    In Uganda, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said he was shocked by the killings.

    "It is vital that there is a full investigation to determine exactly how this bloodshed took place.  I believe Israel must urgently provide a full explanation," he said.

    In New York, the U.N. Security Council convened an emergency meeting on Monday.  The Arab League is also planning an emergency session on Tuesday.

    The condemnation is harshest in the Middle East.  Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas described the killings as a "massacre."  In a joint statement, the Gulf countries called it a "heinous crime."

    Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused Israel of committing "state terrorism", while his government summoned the Israeli ambassador for an explanation.  Turkey's flag was flying on the intercepted vessel.

    About 10,000 protesters marched in Istanbul.  Anti-Israeli protests have also been held in Jordan, Lebanon, Greece, and as far away as Sweden.  

    British Foreign Secretary William Hague called for Israel to allow unfettered access for aid to Gaza.  Spain and France condemned what they called a disproportionate use of force.

    In Italy, the leader of the European Socialists, Martin Schulz, said talks with Israel about closer cooperation with the European Union should be halted.

    "I was always defending Israel, I myself and a lot of members of my group, because we had a certain kind of understanding for the difficult position of Israel.  But the Netanyahu government has reacted in a completely inappropriate and unacceptable way," he said.

    Germany's foreign minister is calling for an investigation, while being careful not to apportion blame.  Sweden's prime minister stressed that "we still do not know enough" about what happened on the Turkish vessel, but he termed it unacceptable to use violence against a humanitarian transport.

    Related video by Ravi Khanna:


    Jerome Socolovsky

    Jerome Socolovsky is the award-winning religion correspondent for the Voice of America, based in Washington. He reports on the rapidly changing faith landscape of the United States, including interfaith issues, secularization and non-affiliation trends and the growth of immigrant congregations.

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