Israel says fence-mending with Turks does not end Gaza blockade

JERUSALEM Sun Mar 24, 2013 1:54pm GMT

Palestinian labourers work at a construction site in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip January 2, 2013. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

Palestinian labourers work at a construction site in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip January 2, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel did not commit to ending its Gaza blockade as part of reconciliation with Turkey and could clamp down even harder on the Palestinian enclave if security is threatened, Israeli officials said on Sunday.

After a U.S.-brokered fence-mending announcement on Friday, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said Israel had met his demands to apologise for killing nine Turks aboard a Gaza-bound activist ship in 2010, pay compensation to those bereaved or hurt and lift the blockade by allowing in more consumer goods.

That fell well short, however, of an end to the blockade - which Erdogan had routinely insisted on during the almost three-year-old rift as a condition for rapprochement.

Although Israel has relaxed curbs on overland civilian imports to impoverished Gaza, it signalled that the naval cordon, imposed during a 2008-2009 offensive, would remain.

"We have nothing against the Palestinian people. The maritime blockade derives from security considerations only, as terrorist groups can smuggle huge amounts of weaponry by sea," defence official Amos Gilad told Israel's Army Radio.

Another official told Reuters that Hamas, the Islamist faction that governs Gaza, was still trying to bring in arms, and that this made "the blockade is as necessary as always".

An investigation commissioned by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in 2011 faulted Israeli marines' deadly force against activists who clashed with them aboard the Mavi Marmara, but deemed the blockade legal. Ankara rejected the latter finding.

Yaakov Amidror, Israel's national security adviser, said that policy on Gaza would depend on the conduct of its factions. The sides fought a eight-day war in November.

On Thursday, Islamist militants in Gaza fired rockets into Israel during a visit by U.S. President Barack Obama, causing no casualties. Israel responded by closing a commercial crossing with Gaza and reducing Palestinian access to fishing waters.

"If there is quiet, the processes easing the lives of Gazan residents will continue. And if there is Katyusha (rocket) fire, then these moves will be slowed and even stopped and, if necessary, even reversed," Amidror told Army Radio.

"We do not intend to give up on our right to respond to what happens in Gaza because of the agreement with the Turks."

REGIONAL INTERESTS

On Friday, during Obama's visit to Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed "Israel's apology to the Turkish people for any mistakes that might have led to the loss of life or injury".

Israel hopes that mending relations with Turkey, that were already frayed before the Mavi Mara protest incident brought them to an all-time low, will help it deal with spillover from civil war in Syria and other regional interests.

CNN Turk on Saturday quoted Erdogan as saying he might visit Gaza, which also borders Egypt, next month. A Hamas government spokesman said the Gaza blockade "must be ended immediately".

Erdogan, who has an Islamist political background, had previously accused Israel of terrorism and piracy and called those killed on the Mavi Marmara "martyrs".

Israel had already offered compensation to the bereaved or injured and has now said it would conclude a damages deal involving "non-liability", linking it to the Turks scrapping any bids to prosecute Israelis, Netanyahu's office said.

Netanyahu's cabinet secretary, Tzvi Hauser, said apologising had been "difficult" for the prime minister. Erdogan's office said that in his phone conversation with Netanyahu on Friday he had voiced appreciation for the "centuries-long friendship and cooperation between the Turkish and Jewish nations".

(Additional reporting by Ayla Jean Yackley; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Robin Pomeroy)

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