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Israelis intercept aid ship without bloodshed

Officials say the Rachel Corrie is being escorted to the Israeli port of Ashdod "Everyone on the boat is very calm," says a Nobel laureate among the activists.

June 05, 2010|By Edmund Sanders | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Israeli warships Saturday intercepted another aid supply ship sailed by pro-Palestinian activists as it headed toward the Gaza Strip in an attempt to break Israel's naval blockade of the seaside territory.

Unlike a previous raid, Saturday's takeover occurred without bloodshed after Israeli naval negotiators reached an agreement to board the cargo vessel with activists' permission, according to Israeli military officials.

The report could not be confirmed with activists because Israeli military jammed satellite and radio communications on the boat.

Israeli military officials said they were escorting the ship to the Israeli port of Ashdod, where the humanitarian supplies were to be inspected and delivered to Gaza. Activists on board will be detained and deported, officials said.

The takeover came after Israeli warships shadowed the protest boat, named Rachel Corrie after the pro-Palestinian activist from the U.S. who was killed in Gaza in 2003, activists said.

"We are not afraid," said Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mairead Corrigan Maguire, who is aboard the ship, in a telephone interview with Al Jazeera television shortly before the interception. "Everyone on the boat is very calm."

In the hours before the takeover, activists and authorities expressed optimism that the high-seas showdown would not turn violent like Monday's confrontation with the Mavi Marmara, lead ship of an earlier flotilla. During that clash, nine activists were killed and dozens of people were injured, including several Israeli commandos.

The latest ship is carrying 21 people and 1,200 tons of medical supplies and construction materials to help rebuild schools and hospitals in Gaza, according to officials with the Free Gaza Movement, the advocacy group organizing the shipments.

"Our action is partly to bring needed aid," said Ramzi Kysia, the movement's coordinator. "But the aid we are bringing is a drop in the bucket. What we need is an end to the blockade and to draw attention to the policies that are forcing Gazans into poverty and aid dependency."

Israel, which is still reeling from the international condemnation over the deadly seizure of the Turkish-flagged Mavi Marmara on Monday, vowed to prevent the latest boat, which originated in Ireland and is sailing under a Cambodian flag, from reaching Gaza and to force it to the Israeli port of Ashdod.

The governments of Malaysia and Ireland, whose citizens make up the majority of the passengers, have called on Israel to use restraint. Eager to avoid more negative publicity, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has urged the military to do its best to avoid casualties.

Late Friday, the White House sent word to the crew of the Rachel Corrie, and any other aid ships that may be on their way to Gaza, to deliver their cargo through the port at Ashdod.

National Security Council spokesman Mike Hammer said the administration is working with Israel, the Palestinian Authority and other international partners to promote the delivery of aid to Gaza while preventing the import of weapons. "The current arrangements are unsustainable and must be changed," he said.

Israel has blamed Monday's deaths on Turkish activists, saying they attacked troops with knives and iron bars shortly after the commandos boarded the ship. The U.S. government and the U.N. Security Council are calling for an independent inquiry.

Some passengers aboard the Rachel Corrie have said they would not resist an Israeli takeover.

One criticized the actions of the Mavi Marmara activists, who fought off Israeli soldiers for several minutes, throwing one commando off a deck.

"That is not part of the game," former U.N. Assistant Secretary-General Denis Halliday told Al Jazeera on Friday from the Rachel Corrie. "The Turkish peace [activists] broke the rules. If you do that, you lose control, and you get panic and chaos and death. We are not going to do that."

The Free Gaza Movement rejected Israeli offers to accept the humanitarian aid in Ashdod and transfer it to Gaza by land, saying that Israel has reneged on other such promises and transfers only a portion of the aid. Israel has been reluctant to allow medical equipment, toys, luxury items and construction materials such as cement into Gaza, saying the latter material could be used to build bomb shelters.

Meanwhile on Friday, Turkey signaled that it would scale back economic and military cooperation with Israel but was careful not to sever ties.

"We are serious about this subject," Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said. "We may plan to reduce our relations with Israel to a minimum, but to assume everything involving another country is stopped in an instant, to say we have crossed you out of our address book, is not the custom of our state."

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