Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev says the conflict on aid ships destined for the Gaza Strip was started by terrorists.
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LEIGH SALES, PRESENTER: The Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev joins us now from Jerusalem.
Mr Regev, thank you for your time.
MARK REGEV, ISRAELI GOVERNMENT SPOKESMAN: My pleasure.
LEIGH SALES: Who initiated the gunfire?
MARK REGEV: It's very clear it came unfortunately from the activists inside the boats. Our sailors who went into the operation there were given specific instructions. This is a police operation, they were told. They were told that their objective is to tow these boats into our Port of Ashdod so the cargo could be checked. They were told "minimum amount of force to be used, maximum amount of restraint", and the violence was initiated by the people on the boats who attacked our soldiers with knives, with iron bars and of course with live fire as well.
LEIGH SALES: Mr Regev, I'm sorry, my earpiece dropped out in that so I couldn't hear what you said, so forgive me if the questions that I ask now go over some of the ground that you have just covered. What evidence is there that Israeli soldiers were fired upon? Do your boats bear bullet holes, does your equipment, do your soldiers, have bullet wounds?
MARK REGEV: We've obviously - we've got a whole series of injured soldiers. We're releasing video, have released and will continue to release as the boats come in. We'll be making evidence public. But I think everyone who was watching what we were doing prior saw that we made every effort possible to avoid confrontation, to avoid violence. First off we said that we're very happy to unload any humanitarian cargo for the Gaza Strip in the civilian Port of Ashdod and we'd push it through the crossings into Gaza.
If they didn't want to deal with us they could have done the same through the Egyptians who made a similar proposal to do it through the Egyptian Port of El-Arish. Unfortunately, they weren't really interested in delivering aid, they were interested in a confrontation, interested in, I s'pose, headlines for their cause. But they weren't - they did everything possible, unfortunately, to initiate violence here, which we had to respond to.
LEIGH SALES: You say that you'll be making the evidence public as the boats come in. Can you tell me what that evidence is?
MARK REGEV: Weapons, the injuries of our own soldiers, video footage. We actually embedded journalists with our troops and I'm sure they'll be reporting on what they saw. It's clear - Israel had no interest in violence, Israel had no interest in escalation. We wanted a police operation. We just wanted to tow these boats into our port in Ashdod.
LEIGH SALES: The Jerusalem Post reported earlier that live fire from the flotilla came from a weapon that those on board the boat took from one of the Israeli soldiers. Can you confirm if that's the case?
MARK REGEV: Yes, I can. I can confirm that was the case, where weapons were taken forcibly from our servicemen and used against them. Our servicemen were under instructions, once again - limited amount of force, limited amount of pressure whatsoever. They were supposed to act like police officers in an operation, and unfortunately the extremists on the boat I think exploited that situation and put some of our servicemen in very grave danger.
LEIGH SALES: But did those on the boats have their own weapons or did they only have access to weapons after the Israeli soldiers boarded?
MARK REGEV: That is being thoroughly investigated as we speak. It's not clear at this stage. What is clear is that they opened fire on our sailors.
LEIGH SALES: Was the force used by the Israeli soldiers in proportion to the threat that was encountered?
MARK REGEV: Once again, I think the viewers in Australia must understand: why do we have this naval blockade in the first place? And the reason is clear. You have countries like Iran, countries like Syria, organisations like Hezbollah that are trying to pump into Gaza advanced missiles, advanced rockets. And as you know, in Israel we've been on the receiving end of those rockets; they've come down on our civilians.
Just last year some 1,000 rockets were fired on Israeli civilians, and so that's the reason that a naval blockade is there and in place, and we have to have that blockade to protect our people. Why were the people on these boats so stuck that they refused to allow their cargo to go through a civilian port and to be examined? I just don't understand.
LEIGH SALES: That doesn't answer my question about whether in this specific case the force that was used in this incident was proportional to the threat.
MARK REGEV: Well, we'll obviously, and like every armed service in the democratic world, we will investigate thoroughly exactly what happened. It appears that unfortunately our team that went on the boats was attacked, they faced a very real and present danger by, once again, knives, iron bars and weapons themselves that were used against our sailors and as a result we had to respond. It was not our desire. The violence was not on our initiative.
LEIGH SALES: Is it not possible that Israel could have prevented this flotilla from entering its waters without boarding the boats?
MARK REGEV: Well, obviously we'll have to look into that possibility, but I don't think so. And you'll recall your own reporter - not your reporter; one of the activists on the boat said: "What was Israel using?" He said stun grenades and tear gas, and that was our goal to use non-violent means in order to do a police operation. Unfortunately, we were met with much, much more severe violence from the activists on the boat.
LEIGH SALES: Does Israel agree that this incident occurred in international waters?
MARK REGEV: Do you know, according to international law that question is irrelevant, because if you know your international humanitarian law, the San Remo memorandum states, specifically 67A, that if you have a boat that is charging a blockaded area you are allowed to intercept even prior to it reaching the blockaded area if you've warned them in advance, and that we did a number of times and they had a stated goal which they openly expressed, of breaking the blockade. That blockade is in place to protect our people.
LEIGH SALES: So Israel believes that it has fully complied with international law in this circumstance?
MARK REGEV: 100 per cent correct. If you look at international law, if someone is breaking your blockade, intends to do so, has been warned, you are allowed to intercept, and that's exactly what we were doing.
LEIGH SALES: Would the Israeli government be prepared to cooperate with an independent inquiry to piece together what happened here?
MARK REGEV: I don't know. I know the following, is that our own investigations are terribly independent. We've had investigations, our - the army has its own independent framework of military justice, and of course any investigations that are done by the military are open to independent judicial review by the courts. We really do have in place in Israel a system of checks and balances to make sure that investigations are both professional and independent.
LEIGH SALES: The Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is due to meet with US president Barack Obama this week for talks on the Middle East peace process. What impact do you imagine this incident is going to have on those talks?
MARK REGEV: Hard to know at this stage. He's today meeting in Canada, tomorrow with prime minister Harper there and tomorrow due to move onto Washington for his meeting with president Obama. Obviously there are much larger issues on the table, whether it's the Iranian nuclear threat or trying to get the Middle East peace process back on track. It's clear however to all those people who want to move the peace process forward that Hamas is one of the major opponents of any progress in the peace process.
Hamas says no to peace, they say no to reconciliation. They support terrorism, they support violence. They're trying to overthrow the legitimate Palestinian government and they keep the people of Gaza under a brutal regime where they crack down on all independent political activity. They've locked up political opponents, they've closed all independent newspapers, they've even closed internet cafes.
You know, if you're a person living in Gaza under the Hamas regime and you're a Christian, or you're a gay, or you're a woman who wants to dress in a modern way, you will face immediately violent retribution from this regime. And I think a lot of those people who think that these activists are somehow human rights activists, well nothing could be further from the truth.
In the past when they've entered the Gaza Strip, the first thing they've done is gone and had their photographs taken with the Hamas leadership and received awards, medals from the Hamas leadership. These people are apologists for a brutal authoritarian regime.
LEIGH SALES: Mark Regev, thank you very much and I do apologise for our technical difficulties.
MARK REGEV: Not a problem. Thank you.
From Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 31/05/2010, by Reporter Kerry O'Brien:
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KERRY O'BRIEN, PRESENTER: Israel is facing a storm of international criticism after a deadly raid on a fleet of ships carrying aid to the Gaza Strip.
The Israeli Army says more than 10 people were killed after its commandoes were attacked with axes and knives and after they were fired on when they boarded the vessels. A Turkish charity says the death toll is at least 15.
The ships were carrying 10,000 tons of humanitarian supplies to Gaza as well as peace activists, challenging Israel's naval blockade which has been in force since 2007.
Israel is claiming it has the backing of international law, but that claim will be hotly disputed.
Joining me now from Jerusalem is Israeli Foreign Affairs spokesman Yigal Palmor.
Yigal Palmor, before we get to Israel's justification of this apparent slaughter, can you update on casualties, on what is happening with the survivors, including nationals, we're told, from 33 countries, and when will you allow independent media to hear the other side of this incident?
YIGAL PALMOR, ISRAELI FOREIGN AFFAIRS SPOKESMAN: I'll begin with the end. The independent media can hear the other side any time, any time they wish. We impose no restrictions. Anyone can report anything they want from anywhere in Israel and there were reports from the boats to certain international TV channels which showed live the boarding of the boats by the Israeli soldiers and how they were attacked by some of the militants. Now, what we know about the casualties at this moment is this: there are eight Israeli soldiers injured and more than 10 dead among the militants. I don't have a definitive number to give you at this point, but more than 10; and then, a few dozen injured. We don't have a definitive number there as well. All the injured and all the casualties were transported immediately by helicopter to hospitals in Israel. All the other foreign nationals, as soon as they reach the port of Ashdod, will be sent back home to their countries of origin, unless they choose to appeal to a local court and they decide to claim that they have a right to stay in Israel, in which case the law says that they can appeal with a lawyer of their choice, but meanwhile they will have to stay in detention. If they choose not to appeal, they will be sent to the airport and put on a plane back home as soon as possible.
KERRY O'BRIEN: Are you prepared to concede that totally innocent people from various countries whose only crime may have been that they wanted to protest against this blockade, or, in the case of some journalists, including two Australian journalists, simply wanted to cover the story, may have been killed or wounded. I'm not suggesting the Australian journalist was killed. But that innocent people may have been killed or wounded unless you consider everyone who climbed on one of these boats is in some way guilty in Israel's eyes?
YIGAL PALMOR: No, of course not, of course not. But anyone who has attacked with a knife or hatchet or a gun an armed soldiers is, of course, fair game. What can I tell you? If you are under attack, then yes, you are fair game, and unfortunately, these people who have chosen to attack the soldiers when there was no need for it, when there were other options to end all this pacifically, these people bear the responsibility for what has happened. They were warned time and again before they sailed to sea and while they were at sea that they would not be permitted to break into Gaza by force. They were offered other options even while they were at sea. They chose confrontation, this is what they were seeking, and they attacked armed soldiers who were boarding the ship with instructions not to use violence. So obviously they provoked a shootout, and unfortunately - and this is something we deeply regret - there are casualties now.
KERRY O'BRIEN: All of your language suggests that Israel was totally the innocent party on this, was not in any way the aggressor. You use terms like, "The people on these boats were going to break into Gaza." These were ships, we're told, loaded with supplies, with aid, with building supplies for Gaza which is depleted in all kinds of ways. How were they going to break in, these peace activists or the people wanting to unload these supplies?
YIGAL PALMOR: Let's make something very clear. You're talking about peace activists, but the major organiser of this sail of this armada, so to speak, is a well-known Turkish Islamic group, the IHH, which has been implicated in terrorist operations already in the '90s and then at the beginning of this decade and they have been in very, very close ties with Hamas, with controlling Gaza, funding them, sending them other types of assistance. Now, one violent Islamist group says they want to send regularly ships in assistance to another which controls with violence and illegally a territory, and you think that this should be go on as if nothing - as if that was business as usual? I don't think so. The IHH is a very dangerous Islamist group. I don't think their intentions were true or innocent. Unfortunately, they embarked with them some people who believed otherwise and people whom the Soviets would have been called "useful idiots". But the main organisers here were the IHH and no-one should make any mistake about the real aim of this group.
KERRY O'BRIEN: I'm not sure that the highly experienced Middle East correspondent from the Sydney Morning Herald Paul McGeough could be described as a "useful idiot". I can't speak for the others, ...
YIGAL PALMOR: I'm referring to the journalists. I'm referring to the activists.
KERRY O'BRIEN: ... but I imagine that amongst - I imagine amongst the hundreds there would have been many that weren't useful idiots. But there's been an avalanche of international protest at Israel's action. There's - this one from the French Foreign Minister sums it up. He said, "Nothing can justify the use of such violence, which we condemn. We do not understand the human toll of such an operation against a humanitarian initiative that has been known for several days." Now presumably the French Foreign Minister is not naive in these matters, so there is an enormous cavalcade of international outrage expressed at Israel's actions. Once again, you find yourself condemned by - including people, some of whom you would count as your friends.
YIGAL PALMOR: Yes, that is a fact, that is a fact and it's very easy to condemn based on what you see on TV. But when rioters are coming your way and they are determined to break everything, to spread, to wreak havoc everywhere, what do you do? Do you let them do that or you send riot police? Now riot police don't look good on TV and they will always be condemned, right? They never look good on TV. But you have to stop the rioters, and these people ...
KERRY O'BRIEN: Well particularly if you have a death toll of 15 or more.
YIGAL PALMOR: Absolutely, absolutely, I agree, but there was no other choice. These people said they were carrying humanitarian aid. Why were they not co-ordinating this with the UN or with the Palestinian Government? They refused to co-ordinate this with anyone who was relevant. Not Israel, granted, not Egypt, not the UN, not the Palestinian Government. Was this really about humanitarian aid? Well, the head of the IHH said just before the sail went - was set off that the real purpose was not the humanitarian aid but to break the blockade, so to seek confrontation. So this is not about humanitarian aid. This was about a confrontation between an Islamist armed group in assistance of another group.
KERRY O'BRIEN: There is of course the whole other question about whether you really do have international law at your disposal, but that's a debate we're going to have to hear over the days to come. We're out of time now. Thankyou very much for joining us, Yigal Palmor. Thankyou.
YIGAL PALMOR: Thankyou. Thankyou.