Israel yesterday served notice that an Irish pro-Palestinian aid ship would not be allowed to fulfil its goal of reaching the Gaza coast this morning. The Rachel Corrie was last night pressing on towards the enclave, following the original flotilla that was halted by Israeli commandos at the cost of nine lives on Monday.
Israel issued a last-minute public appeal to the vessel, carrying 1,000 tons of aid supplies and 11 passengers, including the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mairead Maguire, to dock instead at the Israeli port of Ashdod. "There is a maritime blockade on Gaza," Yossi Gal, the director general of the Foreign Ministry, told reporters here yesterday. Mr Gal said that if the ship wen to Ashdod it would not be boarded and the cargo would be transferred to Gaza once it had been inspected to ensure that there were no weapons on board.
But Ms Maguire made it clear yesterday that the ship would continue on its course, stressing that activists would not resist Israeli forces if they boarded.
She told The Independent yesterday afternoon: "We are 150 miles off the coast of Gaza, heading straight in the direction of Gaza and we hope to be there tomorrow morning by 9 o'clock. Everybody is fine and totally united in our desire to take the cargo boat to Gaza."
The Nobel Prize winner said the cargo had been inspected by officials in Ireland before it left and the hull had since been sealed. "We are carrying just humanitarian aid," Ms Maguire said. "We have said if someone from the UN wishes to come forward and inspect the cargo then we would be open to that, but we want then to sail forward into Gaza with our aid.
Israeli officials have indicated they are not expecting any repeat of the violence which erupted on the Turkish Mavi Marmara passenger ship on Monday when naval commandos opened fire, killing nine. Israel says they did so only after what they described as an onslaught by a hard core of extremists who attacked the troops with knives, metal rods and two pistols snatched from the commandos.
Violent attacks on the first troops to arrive on the upper deck are borne out on videos released by the Israeli military and Turkish TV. But IHH, the Turkish group which helped to fund and organise the flotilla, and was outlawed by Israel in 2008 for its alleged ties with Hamas, has denied that passengers fired on the commandos.
Yedhiot Ahronot, Israel's largest selling newspaper, reported yesterday that the Israeli military had also taken possession of footage showing peaceful activists trying to prevent violent fellow-passengers from attacking the soldiers. The paper said that one of the passengers, apparently an Arab, is seen holding a club and seeking to fend off the assault on the troops. An Israeli military spokesman could not confirm existence of the tapes yesterday.
The Rachel Corrie was supposed to be part of the orginal flotilla but had returned to Ireland a week ago after developing a propeller fault which the Free Gaza movement, one of the flotilla's organizers had suggested was the result of sabotage.
That possibility was reinforced this week when Colonel Itzik Turgeman, a senior IDF officer hinted to the Knesset's Foreign Affairs Committee that some of the vessels – though not the Mavi Marmara –had been tampered with to halt them far from the Gaza or Israeli coast.
But Israeli ministers have began considering steps to ease the three-year embargo on Gaza, which has aroused a new wave of international criticism in the wake of Monday's raid. Amid signs that US officials are becoming impatient with Israel's policy towards Gaza, President Barack Obama stressed his understanding of Israel's security concerns, but added: "On the other hand, you've got a blockage up that is preventing people in Palestinian Gaza from having job opportunities and being able to create businesses and engage in trade and have opportunity for the future."
He also predicted that Israel would agree to an "effective" investigation "of international standards". Although some ministers support an investigation, Defence Minister Ehud Barak has been resisting.
Israel's economic relationship with Turkey has been severely threatened. Taner Yildiz, Turkey's minister of energy and natural resources, has said there will be no new energy or water projects with Israel until relations between the two countries improve.