Amid mounting international outrage and increasing political pressure, Israeli cabinet ministers decided that the activists would be released without trial.
Last night, the Israeli authorities were organising the swift release of those who had been held.
Irish activist Shane Dillon was the first home. On arrival at Dublin airport late last night he said: “We were treated quite badly by the Israelis. I wouldn’t call them soldiers. They are not soldiers, they are terrorists. I am appalled by what they did to us, it was an act of piracy.”
Yesterday, the Government accused Israel of kidnapping Irish citizens.
Meanwhile, Foreign Affairs Minister Micheál Martin has demanded Israel allow the Irish-owned vessel MV Rachel Corrie sail unhindered through the blockade of Gaza.
Mr Martin called Israeli Ambassador Zion Evrony to account yesterday and said the boat, which is carrying Nobel peace prize winner Mairéad Maguire and is due to dock on Saturday, should be allowed through peacefully.
Ms Maguire said the killings made her even more resolved to keep going. “We’re not frightened, no,” she said.
The Taoiseach strongly condemned the Israeli action and demanded the unconditional release of Irish citizens the Government considers “kidnap” victims.
“I make this point that any harm caused to any of our citizens will have the most serious consequences,” he said. He denounced Israel’s blockade of Gaza as “immoral, unacceptable and counter-productive”.
Mr Cowen said that Israel was clearly in breach of international law.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged Israel to lift its Gaza blockade as NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen issued a statement calling for the “immediate release” of the ships and individuals being held by Israel, following an extraordinary meeting of the North Atlantic Council.
Israel said 679 people were arrested, and of those about 50 had left the country voluntarily.
Five Irish citizens had been held in Israel’s Be’er Sheva detention camp.
The Irish passport holders include journalist Paul McGeough, 56, historian Fintan Lane, 43, and former election candidate Fiachra O Luain, 28.
Fintan’s father Jim Lane from The Lough, Cork, said: “You have to stand up, people must stand up against oppression.”
O Luain’s father, Joseph Bangert, a former US marine and peace activist now living in Cape Cod, said: “I think they (Israel) have a Trojan horse on their hands,” referring to the detainees.
Meanwhile, Trócaire has called on the Government to work through the EU to withdraw Israel’s trade privileges with the bloc. “This agreement should be immediately suspended until Israel ends its violations of international law and starts protecting people’s basic human rights,” a spokesperson said.