Jerusalem: Israel's Navy killed four Palestinian militants in diver suits off the coast of Gaza early Monday in the first violence at sea since a deadly raid against an international flotilla last week killed nine pro-Palestinian activists and set off an international storm of criticism against Israel.
In Istanbul, a 20-member Asian security group kicked off a summit with Turkey seeking to condemn Israel for last Monday's raid.
Israel, along with Egypt, has been enforcing a blockade of Gaza since 2007, when the Islamic militant Hamas seized the territory. Israel hoped it would weaken Hamas, prevent the entry of weapons and press for the release of an Israeli soldier captured in 2006, but the objectives have not been achieved.
The blockade has been highlighted with the Israeli interception of the Gaza-bound ships and has prompted growing calls for Israel to lift or at least ease it.
In Monday's incident, a Naval Force spotted Palestinians in diving suits in the waters off Gaza and opened fire, the military said. It said its forces prevented an attack on Israeli targets, but did not provide any further details.
In a text message sent to reporters in Gaza, Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades — a violent offshoot of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah faction — said the four men killed were members of its marine unit who were training in Gaza's waters.
The message said more details would be available at a press conference later Monday.
Four bodies were retrieved and taken to a hospital in central Gaza, said Moawiya Hassanain, a Palestinian health official. The Palestinian naval police said two people were still missing.
Also Monday, Palestinian officials said Israel fired a missile at Palestinian militants near the Gaza border, wounding one. The military said it targeted a group of militants preparing to fire rockets at Israel. The military said 10 rockets and mortars have been fired from Gaza in the past three weeks.
"The bloody escalation today is a desperate attempt by the occupation government to divert the world attention away from the massacre committed against the flotilla," Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri told reporters in Gaza.
A week after the raid, its fallout continued to reverberate around the world.
Turkey, most important ally of Israel in the Muslim world, has said it will reduce military and trade ties with Israel and shelved discussions of energy projects. It has also threatened to break ties unless Israel apologizes for the raid last week.
Israel's government has been frantically trying to counter the wave of harsh international condemnation that has left the Jewish state isolated and at odds with some of its closest allies.
Israel has sought to portray the nine killed activists — eight Turks and a 19-year-old boy who held dual Turkish-US citizenship — as terrorists, saying they prepared for the fight before boarding the flotilla. The military Monday released the names of five of the activists it said have long ties to terror organizations.
The army also said that Gaza's Hamas rulers were preventing the transfer of clothing, blankets and medical equipment from the flotilla that Israel was trying to provide.
Israel has also come under heavy pressure to agree to an international investigation of the raid on the Turkish-flagged Mavi Marmara, the lead ship in the flotilla.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has rejected a proposal by UN chief Ban Ki-moon for an international commission to investigate the raid, but officials said Netanyahu was open to a probe that would look into the actions of the activists as well.
Late Sunday, Netanyahu's office released a statement saying he discussed the international criticism with world leaders, including Vice President Joe Biden, the president of France and the premier of Canada. Netanyahu told them any country would act in self defense if it were targeted by thousands of rockets as Israel has been by Gaza militants.
Netanyahu told his Cabinet earlier Sunday that "dozens of thugs" from "an extremist, terrorism-supporting" organization had readied themselves for the arrival of the naval commandos. He said they organized and boarded the ship separately from the other activists with a clear hostile intent.
Videos released by the military have shown a crowd of men attacking several naval commandos as they landed on a ship from a helicopter, beating the soldiers with clubs and other objects and hurling one soldier overboard.
On Saturday, Israel commandeered another aid ship without incident. All 19 activists, including a Nobel Peace laureate, and crew were deported Sunday.
Israel and the West consider Hamas a terror group responsible for firing thousands of rockets at Israel and carrying out hundreds of attacks, including suicide bombings. Hamas does not recognize Israel's right to exist, and Egypt fears the influence of Hamas radicals on its own Islamists.
First Published: Monday, June 07, 2010, 18:02