Ashdod: Israeli forces on Saturday boarded the Rachel Corrie after it ignored orders not to head for Gaza, but there was no repetition of the bloody violence that erupted when commandos stormed an aid boat earlier in the week.
While Israel hailed the peaceful end to the operation which the military said was carried out without any injuries on either side, the pro-Palestinian organisers lashed out at the Jewish state, accusing it of "hijacking" the ship.
The Israeli military said its forces had boarded the vessel "with the full compliance" of the crew and passengers in a peaceful operation in which there was no use of violence by either side.
"Our forces boarded the boat and took control without meeting any resistance from the crew or the passengers. Everything took place without violence," a spokeswoman said to a news agency, adding that the ship and the 15 people on board, most of them Irish or Malaysian activists, was en route to the southern port of Ashdod.
But the takeover prompted a furious response from the Dublin-based Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign, which accusing Israel of "hijacking" the Rachel Corrie and abducting its passengers.
"For the second time in less then a week, Israeli forces stormed and hijacked an unarmed aid ship, kidnapping its passengers and forcing the ship toward Ashdod port," it said, also noting that those on board were believed to be unharmed.
But army spokeswoman Avital Leibovitz insisted the operation passed off peacefully.
"They didn`t storm the ship -- they boarded it with the agreement" of the people on board, she said to a news reporter in Ashdod.
She said the Rachel Corrie had been commandeered in international waters some 21 nautical miles northwest of Ashdod after the vessel refused to respond to four requests to change course.
The operation began shortly after dawn on Saturday when activists on board the vessel spoke by phone with the Gaza-based welcoming committee and said they had been surrounded by Israeli naval boats.
Shortly afterwards, all communications with the ship were cut, Amjad al-Shawa said to a news agency in Gaza City.
The Irish government, which earlier this week had urged Israel to show restraint and allow the ship to reach Gaza, was kept informed of developments as the situation unfolded, a spokesman for the foreign ministry said to a news agency in Dublin.
The boat was carrying around 1,000 tonnes of aid and supplies, half of which was reportedly cement -- a substance which Israel does not allow into Gaza, claiming it could be used for building fortifications.
Israel has repeatedly argued that there is "no humanitarian crisis" in the Gaza Strip and that such supplies are not needed -- a charge roundly refuted by the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA).
"The idea that there isn`t a humanitarian crisis in Gaza is absurd," spokesman Chris Gunness said to a news agency reporter in Ashdod, pointing out that in the past year alone, poverty among Gaza`s population of 1.5 million had tripled.
"The number of people who cannot afford to feed themselves or their families has gone from 100,000 to 300,000 in the last year alone," he said, noting that 80 percent of the population was dependent on foreign aid.
The incident comes at a sensitive time for Israel, which is contending with the diplomatic fallout of an earlier raid on a flotilla of Gaza-bound aid boats, which left nine people dead, most of them Turks.
Despite an international outcry over the deadly commando operation, Israel vowed to block all attempts to reach Gaza by sea in defiance of the tight blockade it has imposed on the impoverished territory since 2006.
Israel had warned it would stop the Rachel Corrie -- a 1,200-tonne cargo ship named after a US activist killed in 2003 as she tried to prevent an Israeli bulldozer from razing a Palestinian home.
The two sides involved in Monday`s deadly operation gave conflicting versions of what happened, with Israel saying its commandos only opened fire after they were attacked with clubs, knives, guns and other weapons.
Bulent Yildirim, head of the Turkish Islamic charity IHH, said activists used iron bars in self-defence after commandos fired indiscriminately when they stormed the Turkish ferry Mavi Marmara.
Turkish prosecutors have launched an investigation into top Israeli leaders over the raid, Turkish press reports said on Saturday.
And UN human rights chief Navi Pillay said Israel could face prosecution over the deadly raid and that she was following requests for a referral to the International Criminal Court.