Jerusalem A Gaza-bound aid ship was just a few dozen miles from the blockaded Palestinian territory early today, and was being tailed by three Israeli naval boats, a pro-Palestinian activist told The Associated Press.
The activists’ latest attempt to crack the blockade will test Israel’s resolve as it faces a wave of international outrage over its deadly takeover of another aid ship earlier this week.
A spokeswoman for the Israeli military early this morning said it has not taken the boat over.
Diplomatic fallout and protests across Europe and the Muslim world have increased pressure to end the embargo Israel imposed after the Islamic militant Hamas group seized power in Gaza three years ago. The blockade has plunged the territory’s 1.5 million residents deeper into poverty and sharply raised Mideast tensions as the U.S. makes a new push for regional peace.
Shortly after 5 a.m. Israel time, Greta Berlin of the Free Gaza movement that sent the 1,200-ton Rachel Corrie said the vessel was 35 miles from Gaza’s shores.
“There were two warships in the back of them ... and a smaller boat was approaching,” Berlin said from the movement’s headquarters in Cyprus, citing a passenger on board.
Israeli troops still hadn’t boarded the Rachel Corrie nearly two hours later, and Free Gaza’s lawyer, Audrey Bomse, said the Israeli vessels had not yet made contact with the activists’ ship.
Activists on board the Irish boat, including a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, 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 an Israeli port instead.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his Cabinet on Thursday the Irish boat would not be allowed to reach Gaza. On Friday, Israel’s foreign minister said the policy had not changed.
“We have made it clear to the Irish and others, no ship will reach Gaza without a security inspection,” Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman told Channel 1 TV.
The Cambodian-flagged Rachel Corrie 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.