JERUSALEM -- Israel and Egypt signaled a temporary easing of the Gaza Strip blockade Tuesday following harsh international condemnation of the deadly Israeli raid on an aid flotilla en route to the sealed-off Palestinian territory.
Egypt said it was freely opening its border with Gaza for the first time in more than a year to allow in humanitarian aid, setting off a mad rush to the crossing by thousands of residents, while an Israeli official said there is an "ongoing dialogue" with the international community on how to expand the amount of goods entering the area.
At the same time, Israel began expelling some of the nearly 700 activists it rounded up in the naval raid and strongly rejected criticism that its tactics were heavy-handed. The government said late Tuesday it would deport almost all of them within the next two days, but about 50 would be held for investigation into their part in the violence at sea.
Israel pledged to halt a new attempt by pro-Palestinian groups to sail more ships into Gaza, and claimed some of the arrested activists carried weapons and large quantities of cash, raising questions about whether they were mercenaries.
Worldwide condemnation has been flooding in since Israeli naval commandos halted the aid flotilla in international waters overnight Monday, setting off a melee that left nine activists dead and dozens wounded. Turkey, an unofficial backer of the flotilla, has led the criticism, accusing Israel of committing a "massacre," and the U.N. Security Council demanded an impartial investigation.
There were signs, however, that the long-term strategic partnership between Israel and Turkey -- the Jewish state's most important Muslim ally -- would endure.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak spoke to his Turkish counterpart Tuesday, and they agreed the raid wouldn't affect weapons deals, defense officials said. Among them is the planned delivery to Turkey of $183 million in Israeli drones this summer. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were discussing sensitive military ties.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton supported a Security Council statement that condemned the "acts" that cost the lives of the pro-Palestinian activists off the Gaza coast. But U.S. officials did not say whether they blamed Israel or the activists for the bloodshed.
In remarks to reporters at the State Department, Clinton did not call for an end to the blockade, but she pressed Israel to allow greater access for humanitarian relief supplies, "including reconstruction and building supplies."
In a jab at Israel, Clinton said the situation in Gaza, which is controlled by Hamas and under an Israeli blockade, is "unsustainable and unacceptable."
The flotilla was meant to draw attention to the Israeli and Egyptian blockade of Gaza, imposed three years ago after Hamas militants violently seized power. Israel says the blockade is needed to prevent Hamas, which has fired thousands of rockets into the Jewish state, from building up its arsenal. Critics note the closure has failed to hurt Hamas, while damaging Gaza's already weak economy.
Late Tuesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected world criticism, telling top security officials that Israel must prevent Gaza's militant Hamas rulers from rearming.
"In Gaza, there is a terrorist state under Iranian sponsorship," he said. "Opening a sea route to Gaza would present a grave danger to our citizens. Therefore we are maintaining our policy of a naval blockade."
A new confrontation appeared to be brewing.
Greta Berlin said the Free Gaza Movement, which organized the flotilla, would not be deterred and that another cargo vessel was off the coast of Italy en route to Gaza. A second boat carrying about three dozen passengers is expected to join it, with both arriving in the region late this week or early next week, she said.
"This initiative is not going to stop," she said from the group's base in Cyprus.
Despite the rising tension, Netanyahu's spokesman, Mark Regev, indicated Israel would consider ways to ease the blockade to allow more goods into Gaza -- a policy that has been quietly under way in recent months.
"We have been expanding the assistance that has been going into the Gaza Strip -- both the volume and the variety of goods -- and we have ongoing dialogue with the international community," he said.
Egypt, which has cool relations with Hamas, announced the opening of the border to allow aid in what it called a humanitarian gesture. It was unclear, however, when Gaza's Hamas rulers would allow people to cross into Egypt and how long they would be permitted to pass.
Amid the tensions, the Israeli military said it carried out an airstrike in Gaza on Tuesday, killing three militants who fired rockets into Israel. Two militants infiltrating into Israel from Gaza were killed in a separate incident Tuesday, the military said.
An American lost her eye when she was hit in the face by a tear gas canister shot by an Israeli border policeman during a demonstration in Jerusalem against the naval raid, officials and a witness said. Emily Henochowicz, 21, of Maryland, underwent surgery after suffering the injury, said hospital spokeswoman Yael Bossem-Levy.