Gaza-bound aid vessel tailed by Israeli warships
Israeli warships were tailing a Gaza-bound aid boat just a few dozen miles from blockaded Palestine.
Jerusalem: Israeli warships were tailing a Gaza-bound aid boat Saturday just a few dozen miles (kilometers) from the blockaded Palestinian territory, determined not to let it reach Gaza despite international outrage over Israel`s deadly takeover of another aid ship earlier this week.
The 1,200-ton Rachel Corrie, which is carrying a small group of activists, including a Nobel laureate, is trying to deliver a load of aid as well as breach a three-year-old blockade that has plunged the territory`s 1.5 million residents deeper into poverty.
The Israeli government is under pressure to avoid a repeat of the violent confrontation that left nine activists dead on Monday. But it has stood by the blockade, which it says is needed to prevent the Islamic militant group Hamas from getting weapons.
"There were two warships in the back of them ... and a smaller boat was approaching," said activist Greta Berlin of the Free Gaza movement, which sent the ship. She was speaking from the movement`s headquarters in Cyprus and was citing a passenger on board.
By about 7 a.m. Israel time, troops still had not boarded the Rachel Corrie, when it was 25 miles (40 kilometers) from Gaza, said Free Gaza`s lawyer, Audrey Bomse. Shortly after, the Free Gaza office in Cyprus lost contact with the ship, Berlin said.
The Israeli military said it made radio contact with the vessel, but issued no warnings.
"You are approaching an area of hostilities which is under a naval blockade," the military said in a transcript of excerpts of its communication with the ship. It urged the boat to divert to Israel`s nearby Ashdod port, where cargo would be unloaded and transferred to Gaza if it passed a security inspection, but the ship rejected the invitation, the military said.
A senior military spokeswoman, Lt. Col. Avital Leibovich, said the ship had not been taken over or intercepted and was still in international waters.
Activists on board the Irish boat have insisted they would not resist if Israeli soldiers tried to take over their vessel. They rejected Israeli and U.S. appeals to bring the ship to the Israeli port instead.
Foreign Ministry director Yossi Gal urged the activists to dock in Ashdod and promised to transfer all cargo except any weapons or other war materials to Gaza.
Israel has "no desire to board the ship," Gal told reporters on Friday. "If the ship decides to sail to the port of Ashdod, then we will ensure its safe arrival and will not board it."
The Cambodian-flagged Rachel Corrie — named for an American college student who was crushed to death by a bulldozer in 2003 while protesting Israeli house demolitions in Gaza — was carrying hundreds of tons of aid, including wheelchairs, medical supplies and cement.
This latest attempt to breach the blockade differs significantly from the flotilla the Israeli troops intercepted on Monday, killing eight Turks and an American after being set upon by a group of activists.
Nearly 700 activists had joined that operation, most of them aboard the lead boat from Turkey that was the scene of the violence. That boat, the Mavi Marmara, was sponsored by an Islamic aid group from Turkey, the Foundation for Human Rights and Freedom and Humanitarian Relief. Israel outlawed the group, known by its Turkish acronym IHH, in 2008 because of alleged ties to Hamas. The group is not on the U.S. State Department list of terror organizations, however.
By contrast, the Rachel Corrie was carrying just 11 passengers, whose effort was mainly sponsored by the Free Gaza movement, a Cyprus-based group that has renounced violence.
Irish Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mairead Corrigan told The Associated Press from the ship Friday that the group would offer no resistance if Israeli forces came aboard.
"We will sit down," she said in a telephone interview. "They will probably arrest us ... But there will be no resistance."
Corrigan said, however, that the activists would "not be diverted anywhere else. We head to Gaza in order to deliver the humanitarian aid and to break the siege of Gaza."
The former U.N. humanitarian coordinator in Iraq, Denis Halliday, said from the ship that trade unions and government officials had inspected its cargo. "So we are 100 percent confident that there is nothing that is offensive or dangerous," he told Israel`s Channel 2 TV.
Still, he acknowledged that Israel might object to the 500 tons of cement on board, which the army maintains the militants can use to fight it.
In Washington, the State Department said U.S. officials had been in touch with "multiple" countries, including the Israeli and Irish governments, about the latest effort.
"Everyone wants to avoid a repetition of this tragic incident," spokesman P.J. Crowley said.
Later, National Security Council spokesman Mike Hammer said the Rachel Corrie should sail to Ashdod in the interest of safety. He said Washington was working "urgently" with Israel, the Palestinian Authority and other international partners to develop new procedures for delivering more goods to Gaza, while blocking the entry of weapons. "The current arrangements are unsustainable and must be changed," he said.