Attack on flotilla rocks Israel-Turkey relations

ASHDOD, Israel — Israel remained defiant Friday in the face of international outrage over its assault on a pro-Palestinian flotilla, refusing demands from erstwhile ally Turkey that it apologize and preparing to intercept another vessel en route to the Gaza Strip.

The Rachel Corrie, named for a pro-Palestinian American activist, was expected to arrive in the vicinity of Gaza early today. Israeli officials pleaded with the ship, which is carrying an Irish Nobel Peace Prize laureate, to submit to a cargo inspection at an Israeli port, but there was no sign that the order would be heeded.

Israeli and U.S. officials nonetheless expressed confidence that there wouldn't be a repeat of last weekend's confrontation, which left nine Turkish activists dead and several Israeli commandos severely wounded. Among those killed was dual U.S.-Turkish citizen Furkan Dogan, 19.

The bloodshed abroad the Mavi Marmara, some of whose passengers armed themselves with makeshift weapons to battle the Israeli commandos, has poisoned relations between Israel and Turkey, its closest friend in the Muslim world.

Turkey stepped up the confrontation Friday, threatening to downgrade or even sever relations with Israel.

A senior Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the tense situation, said that Israel would refuse Turkey's demands that it apologize, allow an international investigation and end the blockade of the Gaza Strip, which is controlled by the militant Islamist group Hamas.

"Israel is not going to apologize... for defending ourselves," the official said. As for allowing unobstructed access to Gaza, "That is absolutely not going to happen" because it would allow Hamas to rearm, he said.

Israelis have backed their country's decision to continue blockading Gaza, which it began in June 2007 when, after winning elections the previous year, Hamas militants seized control of the territory by routing forces loyal to Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. The naval blockade was announced in March 2009.