JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel will return the Turkish aid ships on which its troops killed nine activists trying to reach blockaded Gaza, officials said on Friday, in what appeared to be a new bid to repair bilateral ties.
Turkey, once a rare Muslim friend of Israel, withdrew its ambassador and suspended joint military exercises after the May 31 raid on the Mavi Marmara cruise ship and five other vessels. Ankara also demanded an apology, but Israel has ruled that out.
While the Jewish state lost a powerful ally in the region, Turkey rallied outraged Arab and Muslim nations and in doing so staked its claim to a leading role in the Middle East under its AK Party government, which has roots in political Islam.
Talks to return the Mavi Marmara and two other Turkish-owned ships from the flotilla had been held up by Israel’s demand the owners undertake not to sail against the blockade, which it says prevents arms smuggling to Gaza’s Islamist Hamas rulers.
“A decision was made yesterday to allow the ships to leave without further conditions. Turkey has been informed. They will leave soon,” an Israeli official said.
The Turkish embassy was handling discussions on how to retrieve the ships from Haifa and Ashdod ports, another Israeli official said, but the embassy had no immediate comment.
The return of the ships was one of steps the U.N. Security Council had asked Israel to take a day after the raid.
“This was something Israel had to do anyway. There were certain steps Israel needed to take, and this was one of them,” Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu was quoted as saying in Vietnam by state-run Anatolian news agency.
“We hope the other necessary steps will be taken,” he said.
Israel has eased overland trade to Gaza, many of whose 1.5 million Palestinians are aid-dependant. Powers like the United Nations and European Union have called for greater access but also spoke out against further attempts to bust the blockade.
The United Nations Human Rights Council named a team of three international experts on Friday to probe the Israeli raid to look into what it called violations of international law.
It was not yet clear whether Israel — which has rejected past U.N. probes as one-sided and has already opened its own inquiry into the incident — would cooperate.
Anticipating two aid ships from Lebanon, Israel said on Thursday it had the right “to use all necessary means” to bar them from Gaza. Israeli media described the departure of the ships, the Mariam and Naji Ali, as imminent. But Lebanese sources said the Mariam was marooned with paperwork problems.
Israel admitted errors in planning the high seas seizure of the Mavi Marmara yet justified the lethal force of its marines, saying they came under club, knife and gun attacks after abseiling in from helicopters. Activists dispute that account.
Israeli former general Giora Eiland, who headed an internal military investigation into the incident, said bloodshed could have been reduced had the navy first cleared the Mavi Marmara’s decks with high-pressure hoses or water dropped from the air.
“If used against the stern, then when the dinghies arrive this would create better conditions for soldiers to board the ship,” Eiland told Israel’s Yedioth Ahronoth daily on Friday.
Three Spanish activists meanwhile sued Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Madrid High Court for alleged crimes against humanity committed in storming the flotilla, on which they were aboard.
Antonio Segura, a lawyer for one of the activists, told Reuters the legal action centred on the Spaniards’ detention on the high seas, their subsequent interrogation and attempts to torture them in Israel, where they were taken by force.
No court case brought against a head of government has so far prospered in Spain.
Additional reporting by Tulay Karadeniz in Istanbul, Laila Bassem in Beirut, Douglas Hamilton in Jerusalem and Raquel Castillo in Madrid; writing by Dan Williams; editing by Philippa Fletcher