Israel decided on Tuesday to free hundreds of foreign peace activists detained from a Turkish-backed aid flotilla to Gaza, including some it had threatened to put on trial, two political sources have said.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s spokesman said cabinet ministers decided amid rising world protests against Israel's raid of the flotilla on Monday in which at least nine people were killed that some 680 peace activists seized on the boats would be released. Israel earlier said it would jail the volunteers “for attacking Israeli soldiers.” Observers believe Israel’s move represents the government’s surrender to increasing international pressure calling for the release of all those detained. "It was agreed that the detainees would be deported immediately," Nir Hefez, a spokesman for Netanyahu, said in a written statement to reporters.
Israeli forces have been keeping hundreds of activists who were onboard an aid ship bound for Gaza and seized by Israeli commandos on Monday in custody at a Beersheba prison, Israeli news sources have said.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry announced yesterday that four Turkish citizens have been confirmed dead on the aid ship. The victims were identified as İbrahim Bilgen, Ali Haydar Bengi, Ali Ekber Yaratılmış and Muharrem Koçak. A total of 629 activists, including 368 Turkish volunteers, were reportedly arrested by Israeli forces. Israeli commando units stormed a Turkish-flagged aid ship sailing as part of a flotilla of six ships bound for Gaza in a naval operation on Monday that left at least nine people dead and sparked an international outcry.
Israel kept some 700 detainees incommunicado, ensuring no contradiction of its version of events. The activists were processed in and around Israel’s port of Ashdod, where the six ships had been escorted. Among the activists were many Turks, but they also included Israelis and Palestinians as well as Americans and many Europeans -- among them politicians, a Jewish Holocaust survivor and a Swedish author. News reports said 368 of 629 peace activists who are in custody are Turkish, including a number of journalists and Bülent Yıldırım, the president of the Humanitarian Aid Foundation (İHH), the Turkish association which took the initiative to organize the flotilla. Israeli sources previously said 480 peace activists were transferred to Ela Prison and 130 more were also to be brought to the prison after interrogation.
The Israeli Interior Ministry said on Tuesday that 50 activists had been taken to Ben Gurion International Airport for voluntary repatriation. Around 629 had refused and will be jailed while Israel weighs its legal options. Some 30 were in hospitals with injuries.
Israeli Internal Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch said police were gathering evidence to prosecute activists who Israel claims had set upon the marines with fists, batons, knives and gunfire.
“They will have a medical examination, an investigation, questioning and, afterwards, whoever wants to leave Israel can go to the [Tel Aviv] airport,” he told a local television station.
The Mavi Marmara was attacked by Israeli forces early on Monday morning, with commandos storming aboard from Israeli navy boats and rappelling down from helicopters. Israeli sources report nine causalities, but independently confirmed figures are unavailable because Israel continues to impose a media blackout. Israel says the bodies of nine victims were sent to the Abu Kabir Forensic Institute in Tel Aviv.
Following the raid on the aid convoy, Israel confiscated the cargo as well as the vessels and docked them in the Israeli port of Ashdod.
Turkish army planes dispatched to retrieve wounded from Israel
Three air ambulances have been dispatched to Israel by the Prime Ministry Disaster and Emergency Management Directorate to retrieve the Turkish volunteers wounded in the Israeli attack on the flotilla of aid ships. The directorate said in a statement issued on Tuesday that 20 Turkish citizens were among those wounded in the early morning hours on May 31, when the Israeli forces attacked the ships, including the Mavi Marmara. In order to bring the wounded citizens back to Turkey for treatment, two air ambulances belonging to the Turkish General Staff and one belonging to the Ministry of Health have been sent to Israel.
One of the military planes is headed to Haifa, while the other two will fly to Tel Aviv to pick up the wounded. The two military planes departed from Turkey at 8:50 a.m. on Tuesday, while the Ministry of Health’s plane left the country at 10:30 a.m. on the same day. “The wounded will be taken to various hospitals in Ankara, according to the Ministry of Health’s plan. In addition, three Turkish Airlines [THY] planes are on standby, prepared to ensure the return of our other citizens to our country,” the statement said.
Meanwhile, the İHH yesterday announced the names of 20 of the injured activists. They include İmdat Avli, Mustafa Batırhan, Revaha Gümrükçü, Cevdet Ökenek, Erkan Bayçidan, Muhyettin Yıldırım, Osman Çalık, Suat Koşmaz, Şahin İbrahim Güleryüz, Şükrü Peker, Mehmet Murat Yıldırım, Canip Tunç, Sadrettin Furkan, Kenan Akçil, Fatih Kabaktan, Ayatullah Tekin, Muharrem Güneş, İsmail Yeşildal, Mehmet Yıldırım and a person only identified as Mehmet Ali since his surname has not yet been ascertained.