By Isabel Kershner
The New York Times
JERUSALEM — Days after a deadly confrontation at sea when Israeli commandos raided a flotilla trying to challenge the naval blockade of Gaza, an Irish-owned vessel carrying humanitarian supplies and a small group of pro-Palestinian activists was seized by Israeli forces off the coast of Gaza early Saturday, Israeli officials said.
The military said that Israeli forces pulled alongside the ship, the Rachel Corrie, just after noon and then boarded it from the sea. There were no resistance or injuries, and the military said the ship’s crew and passengers fully complied with the boarding.
On Friday, the Israeli and Irish governments reached an agreement to unload the vessel’s cargo at the port in Ashdod, in southern Israel, and transport it to Gaza — essentially the same deal Israel offered to the activists in the aid convoy that was attacked on Monday.
But Greta Berlin, a spokeswoman for the Free Gaza Movement, the principal organizer of the earlier flotilla, said that those on board had rejected that approach. “The whole point is to try to break the blockade,” Ms. Berlin said, speaking by telephone from Cyprus.
The rejection left open the possibility of another confrontation, though with only 11 passengers on board, 4 of them over 60 years old, and a crew of 8, there seemed to be less potential for violence. The passengers have said that any resistance will be peaceful.
“If they do come on board, we’ll be nice,” said Faizal Azumu, a passenger who answered a satellite telephone on board the ship on Friday. “We don’t want any problems.”
The director general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, Yossi Gal, struck a conciliatory tone as well, saying in a statement: “We have no desire for a confrontation. We have no desire to board the ship. If the ship decides to sail to the port of Ashdod, then we will ensure its safe arrival and will not board it.”
The White House issued a statement late on Friday, urging that the ship sail to Ashdod “to ensure the safety of all involved.”
However, Israel’s ultranationalist foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, vowed in a television interview that the ship, the Rachel Corrie, named for a young American protester who was crushed to death by an Israeli army bulldozer in Gaza in 2003, would not be allowed to dock in Gaza. “We will stop the ship, and also any other ship that will try to harm Israeli sovereignty,” he told Channel 1. “There is no chance the Rachel Corrie will reach the coast of Gaza.”
Ireland’s foreign minister, Micheal Martin, said he had hoped the deal worked out with Israel would stand as “a useful precedent for future humanitarian shipments, pending the complete lifting of the blockade.”
But he added that he fully respected the passengers’ right to refuse the agreement “and to continue their protest action by seeking to sail to Gaza.”
The resumption of the ship’s voyage followed days of conflicting reports about the ship’s whereabouts and plans.
But organizers said on Friday evening that the 1,200-ton cargo ship was about 110 miles away from Gaza in international waters and was planning on turning toward the coast at dawn on Saturday.
Israel has led a land and sea blockade of the Palestinian enclave since Hamas, the Islamic militant group that Israel, the United States and the European Union view as a terrorist organization, seized full control of the territory three years ago. Under intense pressure on Thursday, the Israeli government said that it would explore new ways of facilitating the entry of civilian goods into Gaza.
Mr. Martin, the Irish foreign minister, said those on board the Rachel Corrie had indicated that they would accept inspection of their cargo at sea, prior to docking in Gaza, but that the Israelis rejected that proposal.
The Rachel Corrie was supposed to make up part of the last flotilla; it fell behind because of mechanical problems before it set out from Ireland. It is said to be loaded with construction materials, tons of paper and other supplies that are hard to come by in Gaza.
Among the passengers are Mairead Maguire, an Irish Nobel Peace laureate; Denis Halliday, a former United Nations assistant secretary general from Ireland; and Mohd Nizar bin Zakaria, a member of the Malaysian Parliament.
Israeli officials have strongly criticized the Free Gaza Movement, a group founded primarily by Palestinian advocates from California. “These people masquerade as human rights activists but they are nothing of the sort,” said Mark Regev, an Israeli government spokesman.
He said that they not only ignored Hamas attacks on Israeli civilians, “but even more conspicuously, they are silent about the Hamas regime’s appalling human rights record.” Last time a Free Gaza boat arrived in Gaza, he said, the activists “received medals from the Hamas government.”
In Gaza, too, there are mixed feelings about such aid missions. “I think they are wasting their time and ours,” said a Palestinian woman who asked not to be identified, fearing retribution from the Hamas authorities. “It won’t make a change in Israeli policy, only in our government’s policy.”
Ms. Berlin of Free Gaza said, “Hamas was democratically elected, whether we like it or not,” referring to the Palestinian legislative elections of 2006, in which Hamas defeated its main rival, Fatah.
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