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Easing of blockade is signaled after raid

Egypt said it would open the Gaza border. Israel said more goods might enter, but vowed to halt aid flotillas.

Egyptian activists clash with riot police during a protest Tuesday against the Israeli raid of the flotilla of ships headed for Gaza.
Egyptian activists clash with riot police during a protest Tuesday against the Israeli raid of the flotilla of ships headed for Gaza.Read moreNASSER NASSER / Associated Press

JERUSALEM - Israel and Egypt signaled a temporary easing of the Gaza Strip blockade Tuesday after international condemnation of the deadly Israeli raid on an aid flotilla en route to the sealed-off Palestinian territory.

Egypt said it was freely opening its border with Gaza for the first time in more than a year to allow in humanitarian aid, setting off a mad rush to the crossing by thousands of residents, while an Israeli official said there was an "ongoing dialogue" with the international community on how to expand the amount of goods entering the area.

At the same time, Israel began expelling some of the nearly 700 activists it rounded up in the naval raid, and strongly rejected criticism that its tactics were heavy-handed. The government said late Tuesday that it would deport almost all of them within the next two days but that about 50 would be held for investigation into their part in the violence at sea. Among those deported was Henning Mankell, a best-selling Swedish author.

Israel pledged to halt a new attempt by pro-Palestinian groups to sail more ships into Gaza, and said some of the arrested activists carried weapons and large quantities of cash, raising questions about whether they were mercenaries.

Worldwide condemnation has been flooding in since Israeli naval commandos halted the aid flotilla in international waters overnight Monday, setting off a melee that left nine activists dead and dozens wounded. Turkey, an unofficial backer of the flotilla, has led the criticism, accusing Israel of committing a "massacre," and the U.N. Security Council demanded an impartial investigation.

There were signs, however, that the long-term strategic partnership between Israel and Turkey - the Jewish state's most important Muslim ally - would endure.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak spoke to his Turkish counterpart Tuesday, and they agreed the raid would not affect weapons deals, defense officials said. Among them is the planned delivery to Turkey of $183 million in Israeli drones this summer. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were discussing sensitive military ties.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton supported a Security Council statement that condemned the "acts" that cost the lives of the pro-Palestinian activists off the Gaza coast. But U.S. officials did not say whether they blamed Israel or the activists for the bloodshed.

In remarks to reporters at the State Department, Clinton did not call for an end to the blockade, but she pressed Israel to allow greater access for humanitarian relief supplies, "including reconstruction and building supplies."

In a jab at Israel, Clinton said the situation in Gaza, which is controlled by Hamas and under an Israeli blockade, is "unsustainable and unacceptable."

The flotilla was meant to draw attention to the Israeli and Egyptian blockade of Gaza, imposed three years ago after Hamas extremists violently seized power. Israel says the blockade is needed to prevent Hamas, which has fired thousands of rockets into the Jewish state, from building up its arsenal. Critics say the closure has failed to hurt Hamas, while damaging Gaza's already-weak economy.

Late Tuesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected world criticism, telling top security officials that Israel must prevent Gaza's Hamas rulers from rearming.

"In Gaza, there is a terrorist state under Iranian sponsorship," he said. "Opening a sea route to Gaza would present a grave danger to our citizens. Therefore we are maintaining our policy of a naval blockade."

A new confrontation appeared to be brewing.

Greta Berlin said that the Free Gaza Movement, which organized the flotilla, would not be deterred and that another cargo vessel was off the coast of Italy en route to Gaza. A second boat carrying about three dozen passengers is expected to join it, with both arriving in the region late this week or early next week, she said.

"This initiative is not going to stop," she said from the group's base in Cyprus.

Despite the rising tension, Netanyahu's spokesman, Mark Regev, indicated that Israel would consider ways to ease the blockade to allow more goods into Gaza - a policy that has been quietly under way in recent months.

"We have been expanding the assistance that has been going into the Gaza Strip - both the volume and the variety of goods - and we have ongoing dialogue with the international community," he said.

Egypt, which has cool relations with Hamas, announced the opening of the border to allow aid in what it called a humanitarian gesture. It was unclear when Gaza's Hamas rulers would allow people to cross into Egypt and how long they would be permitted to pass.

The Rafah border crossing in Egypt is the main gateway for Gazans to leave. Egypt has kept it largely shuttered since a devastating Israeli military offensive in early 2009, periodically opening the crossing to allow aid shipments and humanitarian cases to pass through.

Several thousand Gazans - some in cars with suitcases piled on their roofs, others on foot - rushed to the Egyptian border, hoping to take advantage of a rare chance to escape. After milling about for several hours, they were sent home by Hamas security forces.

The Hamas Interior Ministry said police were not prepared to open the crossing and did not say when they would do so.

Amid the tensions, the Israeli military said it carried out an air strike in Gaza on Tuesday, killing three extremists who fired rockets into Israel. Two extremists infiltrating into Israel from Gaza were killed in a separate incident Tuesday, the military said.

An American lost her eye when she was hit in the face by a teargas canister shot by an Israeli border policeman during a demonstration in Jerusalem against the naval raid, officials and a witness said. Emily Henochowicz, 21, of Maryland, underwent surgery after suffering the injury, hospital spokeswoman Yael Bossem-Levy said.

Witness Jonathan Pollak said Palestinian youths were hurling rocks, but Henochowicz did not participate in any violence and was standing at a distance. A sister said in a Facebook message that the family would have no comment.