Gaza-bound ship
Israeli soldiers walking in front of one of the Gaza-bound ships at the port of Ashdod June 1, 2010 Photo by Reuters
Text size

Israel has begun deporting the first batch of foreign activists seized aboard a six-ship humanitarian aid flotilla seized in an Israel Navy raid en route to the Gaza Strip, the Foreign Ministry said Wednesday, indicating that the rest of the activists will be escorted out of the country throughout the day.

325 foreign activists were transferred on Wednesday morning from the Ela detention facility in Be'er Sheva to Ben Gurion Airport for flights to their countries of origins.

Another 186 flotilla activists were still at the prison in Be'er Sheva but Israeli authorities were processing their release "at this moment," said a prison service spokeswoman

A Turkish Airlines plane landed at Ben Gurion on Wednesday morning, to pick up detained Turkish activists. Two more Turkish Airlines planes are expected to arrive over the course of the day. A deputy Turkish foreign minister arrived on the first plane to accompany the activists on their trip home.

The decision to deport the hundreds of foreign activists was announced by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided late Tuesday, in the face of mounting world criticism of Monday's assault.

Israeli officials said all 680 activists held would be released, including two dozen Israel had threatened earlier to prosecute charging they had assaulted its troops.

In addition, 124 activists from 12 Muslim nations - most of them without diplomatic ties with Israel - crossed the Allenby Bridge aboard five Jordanian buses.

Jordanian government spokesman Nabil Al-Sharif said there were 30 Jordanians in the group. Jordan is one of two Arab nations with a signed peace treaty with Israel.

The bridge's Jordanian chief, Brig. Mahmoud Abu Jumaa, said Jordan will help repatriate the activists - who include lawmakers and journalists - to their respective countries in coordination with their governments.

Kuwaiti ambassador Sheik Faisal Al Sabah said there were 16 Kuwaitis aboard the buses. They will be flown home aboard a Kuwaiti government-chartered plane later Wednesday, Al Sabah said.

He said the other activists came from Azerbaijan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Algeria, Morocco, Mauritania, Yemen, Oman and Bahrain.

Dozens of other activists remain in Israeli detention, but most are expected to be deported in the coming days.

"It was agreed that the detainees would be deported immediately," Nir Hefez, a spokesman for Netanyahu, said in a written statement to reporters Tuesday. Netanyahu made the decision after consultations with his top ministers.

The activists arriving in Jordan said they had been treated poorly by Israel before being deported.

"The Israelis roughed up and humiliated all of us - women, men and children," said Kuwaiti lawmaker Walid al-Tabtabai, who was on board one of the ships with other activists from Muslim countries.

"They were brutal and arrogant, but our message reached every corner of the world that the blockade on Gaza is unfair and should be lifted immediately," he added.

The bearded lawmaker said there was not a single weapon with the passengers aboard all the ships.

Algerian Izzeddine Zahrour said Israeli authorities deprived the activists of food, water, sleep and use of toilet facilities.

"It was an ugly kidnapping and subsequently bad treatment in Israeli jail," he said. "They handcuffed us, pushed us around and humiliated us".

Mauritanian Mohammed Gholam said Israel wanted the detained actto sign documents saying that we entered Israel illegally.

"We refused to sign anything and told our captors that we didn't wish to go to Israel, but to Gaza and that their commandos kidnapped us from international waters," he added.

The activists from Europe, North America, Asia and North Africa were processed in and around Israel's port of Ashdod on Monday evening, where the six ships of the blockade-running convoy had been escorted after a raid on a Turkish-flagged vessel left nine people dead.

One hundred and twenty of the nearly 700 passengers were transferred Tuesday evening to the border crossing with Jordan, from where they will be returned to their home countries.

The Interior Ministry said 682 activists were ordered deported, and that 45 left on Tuesday, while others were jailed as they challenged the orders, or in hospital being treated for injuries.

Israel gave the following breakdown of countries and numbers of those activists ordered expelled, excluding the nine killed and the seriously wounded in Monday's raid:

Australia 3; Azerbaijan 2; Italy 6; Indonesia 12; Ireland 9; Algeria 28; United States 11; Bulgaria 2; Bosnia 1; Bahrain 4; Belgium 5; Germany 11; South Africa 1; Holland 2; United Kingdom 31; Greece 38; Jordan 30; Kuwait 15; Lebanon 3; Mauritania 3; Malaysia 11; Egypt 3; Macedonia 3; Morocco 7; Norway 3; New Zealand 1; Syria 3; Serbia 1; Oman 1; Pakistan 3; Czech Republic 4; France 9; Kosovo 1; Canada 1; Sweden 11; Turkey 380; Yemen 4.