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An Israeli commando lands on a Gaza-bound ship in the Mediterranean Sea in this frame grab taken from footage released by DHA on May 31, 2010. Israeli commandos intercepted Gaza-bound aid ships on Monday and at least 10 pro-Palestinian activists on board were killed in bloodshed that plunged Israel into a diplomatic crisis.

REUTERS TV/DHA via Reuters TV

The killing of nine pro-Palestinian activists on a flotilla carrying aid to the Gaza Strip is a propaganda victory for Israel's enemies, has made the country vulnerable to international condemnation and has seriously harmed its long-standing good relations with Turkey, a key Muslim ally.

The regrettable incident will also focus the world's attention on the humanitarian consequences of Israel's three-year blockade of the Gaza Strip, an impoverished territory of 1.5 million.

Israel says it was not prepared for the fierce greeting that awaited its naval commandos as they rappelled down from helicopters onto the Mavi Marmara, one of six ships in the "Gaza Freedom" flotilla, in international waters, 130 kilometres from Gaza.

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Passengers armed with what appeared to be metal bats, slingshots, a table and even live fire from two pistols, which they apparently wrested from soldiers, mounted heavy resistance. Stomping on soldiers' hands and beating them with bars are not what one expects from peace activists on an aid mission. Notably, there has been little outrage over the violence employed by the passengers.

But the results speak for themselves. At least nine activists - most from Turkey - from the "Gaza Freedom" flotilla were killed. And Israel is being criticized as a state that uses a disproportionate degree of force to quash perceived threats, even from humanitarian activists.

The ships had been repeatedly warned not to try to ferry 700 people and 10,000 tonnes of supplies in breach of the blockade of Gaza, imposed by Israel and Egypt after the militant group Hamas seized control in 2007.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was visiting Ottawa when the incident occurred, expressed regret for the loss of life, but said Israeli troops acted in self-defence.

He will now need to explain to the international community why the Israeli military was preventing basic food supplies from reaching Gaza's people.

The attack on the aid flotilla has harmed the interests of the Israeli people. The passengers - in spite of their iron bars and makeshift weapons - were not weapon runners arming Hamas. Surely Israel knew from intelligence sources what they were dealing with, even if they were surprised by the initial fury with which their soldiers were greeted. The flotilla was not a threat that justified a brutal response.

In those respects, the world should hold Israel to account. But no one should lose sight of the greater challenge, the one that led to the blockade in the first place: how to turn Gaza into a free and functioning territory that presents no terrorist threat to its neighbour.

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