Charges against activists abandoned after Turkey delivers ultimatum

Israel bowed to heavy diplomatic pressure to deport hundreds of pro-Palestinian activists yesterday, after what Turkey said was an ultimatum that threatened Jerusalem with severe political consequences if it kept its citizens in custody.

In an apparent climbdown, Benjamin Netanyahu's government began releasing and deporting more than 600 pro-Palestinian activists, including some accused of attacking Israeli commandos in the lethal operation to halt their flotilla. "We have clearly stated that we would review our ties with Israel if all Turks are not released by the end of the day," Turkey's Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, said yesterday. "No one has the right to try people who were kidnapped in international waters."

Israeli officials had previously suggested that criminal charges would be pursued against a minority of the activists. Yehuda Weinstein, Israel's attorney general, admitted that the decision to release the passengers was taken by Israel's political leadership despite the fact that some were "suspected of having carried out criminal acts". The move was based on "clear diplomatic interests touching on the state of Israel's foreign relations and national security," she said.

Israel is still facing widespread international condemnation for the raid on the flotilla, in which commandos boarded the Turkish Mavi Marmara in international waters on Monday and which resulted in the deaths of nine people, including four Turks. It was dealt another blow yesterday as the same body that set up the Goldstone report into the 2008-9 Israeli military offensive in Gaza decided to send a committee to Israel to investigate.

Four prominent Israeli-Arab activists who joined the flotilla, including Sheikh Raed Salah, leader of the northern branch of the Islamic League are now expected to be released from Beersheeva jail today. The Arab Knesset member Talab el-Sana had demanded their release yesterday, saying: "If the detainees are being deported, there is no justification for holding representatives of the public."

Their continued detention would have been hard to defend given that the deportees include 40 activists said by the Israeli military as having been on board the Mavi Marmara without identification papers and "equipped with bullet-proof vests, night-vision goggles, and weapons". The original link to the military's statement on the Israel Defence website identified the men as "Al-Qa'ida mercenaries" but the reference to Al-Qa'ida was removed from the site last night.

There were angry scenes in the Knesset yesterday when Hanin Zoabi, a woman Arab MP who had taken part in the flotilla, clashed with other right-wing members including Anastassia Michael, who was evicted from the chamber after physically trying to prevent Ms Zoabi from speaking. Another, Miri Regev, shouted at her: "Go to Gaza, traitor." Ms Zoabi was removed from the podium when her speech overran after repeated interruptions.

Around 400 of the deportees – who include more than 30 Britons – were held up yesterday at Ben Gurion airport as several individuals challenged the deportations in Israel's Supreme Court on the grounds that some should face criminal charges.

Israel maintains its troops opened fire after coming under attack from passengers on the Mavi Marmara.

With Turkey's ambassador to Tel Aviv recalled, and Israel's relations with easily its most important Muslim ally having plunged to a new low as a result of the operation to halt the flotilla, Ankara has said that full links can only be restored if Israel lifts its three-year blockade of Gaza. "The future of ties with Israel will depend on the attitude of Israel," Mr Davutoglu said yesterday.

After demonstrations against Israel in the aftermath of the raid, Turkey has stepped up security to protect the Jewish community. "Our Jewish citizens are not foreigners here," Mr Davutoglu said. "We have lived together for centuries, and we will continue to do so."

In Britain, David Cameron told the House of Commons that the raid was "completely unacceptable". He added it was for friends of Israel like himself to tell Israel that "the blockade actually strengthens Hamas's grip on the economy and on Gaza".

But in his first televised address since the raid, Mr Netanyahu, Israel's Prime Minister, accused international critics of "hypocrisy" and declared: "The flotilla was trying to break the naval blockade on Gaza, not bring humanitarian aid. Ships like these are capable of smuggling large amounts of weapons."

Meanwhile, the World Health Organisation's director in the region, Tony Laurance, said it was "impossible to maintain a safe and effective healthcare system" in Gaza under siege conditions. "It is not enough to simply ensure supplies like drugs and consumables," he said. "Medical equipment and spare parts must be available and be properly maintained."

Meanwhile, Iranian-backed Press TV said its British correspondent Hassan Ghani, who broadcast from the Mavi Marmora, was missing. British diplomats said they had no reason to believe he was among the dead.

Testimony: 'We were attacked without warning'

Ahmed Brahimi, Algerian

"They humiliated us. We were not armed. We did not go there to fight. We were doing our morning prayers when the Israelis first tried to come on board the Marmara ship.

"We used sticks and all what we could find to defend ourselves to stop the assault. During the second assault, they succeeded in kidnapping the young son of the captain, and then we found ourselves obliged to give up.

"They seized our cell phones and did not allow us to use the lavatory. Our hands were tied up, and some of us were placed on our stomachs.

"They told us to sign a document written in Hebrew... We, the Algerians, refused to sign the document because we do not understand Hebrew and more importantly because we do not recognise Israel."

Norazma Abdullah, Malaysian

"The Israelis just attacked us without warning after dawn prayers.

"They fired with some rubber bullets but after some time they used live ammunition. Five were dead on the spot and after that we surrendered."

Abdullah said the Turkish-backed flotilla had been more than 68 miles off the Gaza coast when it was intercepted.

"Our original plan was to stop there and ask for Israeli permission before we entered and, if they refused, to stay at sea in protest... but they attacked us before we had a chance to do that."

Abdul Rahman Failakawee, Kuwaiti

"The attack was totally barbaric. They used legitimate and maybe illegitimate weapons: rubber bullets, live ammunition, sound bombs and tear gas bombs. They also used batons as they landed to beat those on board and get control of the ship."

Walid al-Tabtabai, Kuwaiti

"The Israelis roughed up and humiliated all of us – women, men and children. 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."

Hasan Nowarah

"They were shooting from their own helicopter before their soldiers even came down to the upper deck of the Marmara ship.

"They were attacking the people there before the people did anything. They were hiding and taking cover from the load of bullets and live ammunition. Three people died. We were sailing to Gaza to lift the blockade and provide them with medical aid."

Archbishop Hilarian Capucci, Greek

"Our trip to Gaza was a trip of love, and God was with us. Israel by its actions had rightly drawn world outrage over its brutality against unarmed people carrying a message of love to an innocent occupied people under siege."