Israel thwarts new attempt to break Gaza blockade
Commandos seize vessel peacefully
ASHDOD, Israel — Israel prevented a new attempt to break its blockade of Gaza yesterday when its naval commandos boarded an Irish-owned vessel carrying humanitarian supplies and prominent activists and steered it to this Israeli port.
There were no attempts at resistance or reports of violence, the Israeli military said.
The interception, 23 miles off the coast, took place less than a week after an Israeli commando raid on a Gaza-bound Turkish ship turned violent, leaving nine Turkish activists dead and creating an international crisis that severely damaged Israeli-Turkish relations.
On Friday, the Israeli and Irish governments reached an agreement to unload the vessel’s cargo in Ashdod, in southern Israel, and transport most of it to Gaza, but the group sponsoring both this ship and the Turkish flotilla, the Free Gaza Movement, rejected the deal.
The 11 activists and eight crew members on board the 1,200-ton cargo ship had made clear at the outset that they would not resist and that they had no arms. The passengers included Mairead Maguire, an Irish Nobel Peace laureate; Denis Halliday, a former UN assistant secretary general from Ireland; and Mohd Nizar bin Zakaria, a member of the Malaysia’s Parliament.
It was not possible to reach the boat because communications were jammed but an Israeli journalist embedded with the navy filed an account of the takeover that confirmed the military’s report of the events.
The journalist, Ron Ben-Yishai of Ynet News, said the takeover, shortly before 12:30 p.m., took five minutes and involved two missile boats carrying about 20 soldiers.
A spokeswoman for the Free Gaza group, Greta Berlin, told said the takeover was “another outrage to add to the nine murdered,’’ and that the group would be sending more ships to Gaza. The group aims to end the three-year blockade of Gaza, which Israel says is intended to prevent the infiltration of weapons and militants into the Hamas-run territory.
The Israeli military said that the ship, Rachel Corrie, had been asked three times to dock in Ashdod, change course or face a naval takeover and that the requests had been ignored. The operation did not involve an airdrop as in the raid last Monday.
A military spokeswoman here, Lieutenant Colonel Avital Leibovich, said the passengers would be questioned by the police, processed through customs and deported. Those who refused deportation could face jail, she said.
A senior naval commander said that the cargo would be inspected here and that anything that would not serve Hamas for weapons or defense would be sent over land to Gaza.
The commander, who spoke by telephone to journalists under military rules of anonymity, was asked why Israel did not agree to inspect the cargo at sea and then permit the boat to reach Gaza.
“It is not possible to inspect thousands of bags inside a vessel,’’ he said. “You have to unload it in port and examine it there.’’
He said everything the boat was carrying, except items like cement that could be used to build bunkers, tunnels or rockets, would be delivered to Gaza.
Defending Israel’s blockade of Gaza, which some experts in international law say is illegal, he said, “Everyone understands that the regime there is in a state of armed conflict with us and that with such material they can build more rockets.’’
Israel has been widely condemned for its blockade. After last Monday’s raid, when Israeli commandos met fierce resistance and opened fire on the antiblockade activists, Israel has said it is open to new ways to ensure that civilian goods can enter Gaza while meeting Israeli security needs. It is unclear what the new ways would include.
The Rachel Corrie, named after an American activist killed in 2003 as she tried to prevent an Israeli bulldozer from razing a Palestinian home, had been due to join the other boats in the flotilla last week but was delayed by technical problems.
Hamas, which rejects Israel’s existence, won Palestinian parliamentary elections in early 2006. Israel then began to reduce trade and relations with Gaza.
When Hamas militants seized an Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, in a raid that June, Israel further reduced what was permitted in and out of the coastal territory.
A year later, after Hamas fighters drove the more moderate Fatah movement from Gaza, Israel imposed a full closure on Gaza, permitting in only basic humanitarian goods.
While international aid agencies say there is no starvation or acute medical crisis there, malnutrition is creeping up, water treatment and sewage are problematic and the economy has been almost entirely shut down by the blockade, which is also enforced by Egypt. The United States and other world powers say that the situation is untenable and that a new approach must be found.