Israel seizes second aid ship as protests grow

No shots fired as forces take control of vessel laden with medical supplies
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The Independent Online

Israeli forces seized a Gaza-bound aid vessel peacefully and without meeting resistance yesterday, just five days after they stormed aboard a Turkish vessel in an assault that left nine dead and six people still missing.

The Israeli navy took control of the MV Rachel Corrie in international waters 20 miles from the Gazan coast without a shot being fired. Footage provided by the Israeli military showed three small navy vessels pulling up to the cargo boat. In a second segment, footage from an Israeli aircraft hovering above the Rachel Corrie showed activists sitting down in the middle of the top deck. Commandos then clambered on to the boat by sea, instead of descending from helicopters as occurred last Monday.

Communications to the Rachel Corrie had been cut earlier in the day, and Israeli warships had tailed the boat since early morning. Greta Berlin, a spokeswoman for the Free Gaza group that organised the trip and has renounced violence, described the takeover as "another outrage to add to the nine murdered", and denied Israeli claims that troops had been invited aboard. Ms Berlin, who spoke from the group's Cyprus office, said her organisation would send more ships to Gaza and that it has been contacted by four captains volunteering for the next mission.

The Rachel Corrie, whose passenger list included the Nobel peace laureate Mairead Corrigan, had hoped to breach a three-year blockade which has plunged Gaza's 1.5 million residents deeper into poverty. Israel has offered to inspect the cargo – consisting of wheelchairs, medical supplies and cement – and send everything except the cement to Gaza overland. Hamas has said it would refuse to accept any aid from the Israeli-intercepted flotilla as long as the blockade remained in place.

The navy officers addressed the boat as "Linda" – the Cambodian-flagged vessel's name before it was renamed in memory of the US college student who was crushed to death by a bulldozer in 2003 while protesting against Israeli house demolitions in Gaza.

But even as the boarding was happening, the response to the deaths earlier in the week was gathering momentum. A United States National Security Council spokesman said: "The current arrangements are unsustainable and must be changed." The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, said the embargo, which has blighted the lives of the 1.5 million people in Gaza, was illegal and should be lifted. Swedish dock workers will this week launch a week-long boycott of Israeli ships and goods; there were demonstrations around the world yesterday; and, in Northern Ireland, the deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, said that the Rachel Corrie should have been allowed to proceed to Gaza "without Israeli aggression".

These reactions, and the worldwide revulsion at the deaths, may yet bear fruit. Although Israel's Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has said the blockade was meant to keep weapons out of the hands of the Iranian-backed Hamas, analysts expect Israel at least to modify the blockade. Israeli officials have said that Mr Netanyahu is considering allowing some form of international assistance in enforcing an arms embargo, while letting in civilian goods.

Israel has also faced calls for an international investigation into last Monday's killings, but has so far conceded only a possible foreign role in an Israeli inquiry. That will satisfy few people. In Istanbul, an official post-mortem 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 the back. Turkish-American activist Furkan Dogan was shot five times from less than 18 inches away, in the face, the back of the head, twice in the leg and once in the back. In addition to those killed, 48 others received gunshot wounds and six are still missing. The 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.

Nearly 700 activists had joined that earlier operation, most of them aboard the lead boat from Turkey, the Mavi Marmara, which was the scene of the violence. That boat 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. But the group is not on the US State Department list of terror organisations.

Yesterday, tens of thousands of people staged demonstrations across the world, from London, Edinburgh and Oban to Auckland, Barcelona and Istanbul. One of the largest saw at least 4,000 people assembling at Downing Street before marching on the Israeli embassy in Kensington. Among them was Kevin Ovenden, 41, from London, who was one of those who had been on the flotilla. Speaking to The Independent on Sunday beside the Cenotaph, he compared the attack he witnessed to the violence in apartheid-era South Africa. "This has been the Soweto or Sharpeville of the movement for Palestinian solidarity," he said. "It is the equivalent of the apartheid assaults that changed world opinion, and I believe this will be a turning point that will accelerate the day the siege is lifted." Those calling for greater action from the UK government included Caroline Lucas MP and the film director Ken Loach.

Jamie Cory, a British peace activist from Manchester, was arrested by Israeli soldiers in the West Bank village of Beit Ommar as he protested against the interdicting of the Rachel Corrie.