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Flotilla Assault Off Gaza Spurs Crisis


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Wall Street Journal:

TEL AVIV—At least nine pro-Palestinian activists died when Israeli commandos boarded a ship headed to the blockaded Gaza Strip early Monday, plunging Israel into a diplomatic crisis that could obstruct action on the most pressing issues in the Mideast, from U.S.-backed peace talks to sanctions against Iran.

The incident drew harsh words from the Arab world and questions from foes and allies about why the operation to intercept the six-ship flotilla, for which Israel had weeks to prepare, turned deadly. The United Nations Security Council met in emergency session to consider condemning Israel's actions.

The clash brought tensions with Turkey, one of Israel's few friends in the Muslim world, to a boiling point. Thousands of Turks protested in Istanbul. And Ankara, which had publicly backed the flotilla, withdrew its ambassador to Israel.

Israel defended its actions, saying soldiers being lowered from a helicopter onto the deck of one of the ships, the Mavi Marmara—a Turkish-flagged ferry carrying 600 passengers—were beset by activists armed with metal poles, knives and guns.

Details of the clash remained sketchy, with information limited to briefings by the Israeli military, which cut off access to flotilla participants early Monday.

Even before the incident, Israel's relations with even its most staunch ally, the U.S., were frayed. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, visiting Canada on Monday, canceled a visit slated for Tuesday to meet President Barack Obama in Washington—a meeting that Israeli and U.S. officials hoped would mend ties and give both sides an opportunity to show the strength of the alliance. An Israeli official said the prime minister "feels he has to be home to deal with this."

Mr. Obama, in a phone call with the Mr. Netanyahu, expressed regret at the loss of life and "expressed the importance of learning all the facts and circumstances around this morning's tragic events as soon as possible," a White House spokesman said.

European allies were less circumspect. France and Spain quickly concluded the Israeli use of force was excessive. French President Nicolas Sarkozy said he "condemns a disproportionate use of force." Spain called the Israeli actions "unacceptable."

The European Union called for a full enquiry. The U.K. called for Israel to drop its blockade of Gaza.

The international censure could endanger some of the key foreign-policy aims of Mr. Netanyahu's government, analysts said. Those include Israel's stated top strategic priority: keeping Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
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