Israeli forces board Gaza-bound aid vessel, encounter no resistance

By Amy Teibel, AP
Saturday, June 5, 2010

Israeli forces board Gaza-bound aid vessel

JERUSALEM — The Israeli military says its forces have seized a Gaza-bound aid vessel, preventing it from breaking an Israeli maritime blockade of the Hamas-ruled territory.

The military says its forces boarded the 1,200-ton Rachel Corrie cargo ship from the sea, not helicopters, and that they did not encounter resistance.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP’s earlier story is below.

JERUSALEM (AP) — 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. Activists on board the Irish boat have insisted they would not resist if Israeli soldiers tried to take over their vessel.

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, even as the U.S. calls the current restrictions unsustainable.

“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 new ship. She was speaking from the movement’s headquarters in Cyprus and was citing a passenger on board.

By about noon Israel time, Israeli’s military said it had still not boarded the Rachel Corrie, when it was 25 miles (40 kilometers) from Gaza. The Free Gaza office in Cyprus said it lost contact with the ship on Saturday morning.

The Israeli military said it made radio contact with the vessel four times, 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 repeatedly 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.

Lt. Col. Avital Leibovich, a military spokeswoman, ruled out the possibility that the vessel would be allowed to reach Gaza.

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 a Turkish-American after being set upon by a group of activists.

In Turkey, an official autopsy report said a preliminary examination revealed that the nine men were shot a total of 30 times, and five of them were killed by gunshots to the head and their backs. One of the activists was shot to death from close range, it said.

The autopsy report will be sent to the prosecutor’s office in Istanbul in the next two months as evidence to be used against Israel in a possible court case, the state-run Anatolia news agency said.

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 from Ireland and Malaysia, whose effort was mainly sponsored by the Free Gaza movement, a Cyprus-based group that has renounced violence. Nine crew were also on board.

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 Friday 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.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said the cargo would be inspected in Ashdod and that permitted goods could be transferred to Gaza. The import of cement has been sharply restricted, but Palmor said that cement could also be sent to Gaza, in coordination with the United Nation.

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 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.

Associated Press Writers Menelaos Hadjicostis in Nicosia, Cyprus, and Selcan Hacaoglu in Ankara, Turkey, contributed to this report.

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