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Saturday, June 5, 2010

Gaza-bound ship Rachel Corrie arrives at Israeli port

Story Highlights

  • Incident comes days after nine killed in Israel Navy takeover of Mavi Marmara
  • Passengers said they would offer no resistance
  • Rachel Corrie named for American activist killed by IDF bulldozer in 2003
  • Netanyahu instructed the military to avoid harming those onboard ship

The Gaza-bound aid ship "Rachel Corrie" arrived Saturday at the Israeli port city of Ashdod after Israel Defense Forces soldiers boarded the ship peacefully and escorted it into Israeli territory. The move came after warnings that Israel would not allow the vessel to reach Gaza, which is under blockade by Israel, and several days after an Israel Navy takeover of another boat headed for the Hamas-ruled coastal strip ended in violent clashes and the deaths of nine passengers.

The MV Rachel Corrie enters Ashdod port

The MV Rachel Corrie nearing the Ashdod port on Saturday, 5 June 2010.

Photo by: IDF Spokesman

The Cambodian-flagged Rachel Corrie - named for an American college student who was crushed to death by an IDF bulldozer in 2003 while protesting Israeli house demolitions in Gaza - was carrying hundreds of tons of aid, including wheelchairs, medical supplies and cement.

An IDF spokesman said Saturday that Israeli special forces soldiers used boats to board the ship, and were not air-dropped as in the nighttime takeover of the Mavi Marmara on Monday.

The spokesman said the soldiers had boarded after receiving full consent and cooperation from the Free Gaza activists on the ship. The activists dropped a ladder in order to help the soldiers board the ship, the IDF said.

The group of IDF soldiers that boarded the ship included several female soldiers to handle the female passengers on board.

The IDF said earlier that the "Rachel Corrie" had ignored an invitation to unload its cargo at an Israeli port and chose to continue its trip toward Gaza.

According to the army, the organizers "chose to ignore the invitation to dock at the Ashdod port where the cargo could be unloaded and transferred to the Gaza Strip upon inspection."

The Cyprus-based Free Gaza group used micro-blogging website Twitter to announce that troops from three three Israeli naval boats, which had been tailing the ship, had boarded peacefully at 5:50 A.M. Israel time, with no struggle or injuries.

The activists' latest attempt to crack the blockade was seen as a test of Israel's resolve in the face of international conmdenation over the takeover of the Mavi Marmara.

The Rachel Corrie

The Rachel Corrie at dock in Dundalk, Ireland.

Photo by: (Free Gaza)

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.

American Vice President Joe Biden said Wednesday that Israel had been right to prevent the Mavi Marmara from reaching Gaza. He said that Israel had given the boat the option of unloading its cargo in Ashdod for delivery to Gaza, that Israel "has a right to know whether or not arms are being smuggled in" to the strip.

Shortly after 5 A.M. Israel time on Saturday morning, 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.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his Cabinet on Thursday the Irish boat would not be allowed to reach Gaza. On Friday, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman 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," Lieberman told Channel 1 TV.

This latest attempt to breach the blockade differs significantly from the flotilla the Israeli troops intercepted on Monday, killing eight Turks and a Turkish 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. 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.

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.

Irish Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mairead Corrigan told The Associated Press from the ship Friday that the group would offer no resistance if Israeli forces came aboard.

"We will sit down," she said in a telephone interview. "They will probably arrest us ... But there will be no resistance."

Netanyahu instructed the Israeli military to avoid harming the passengers on board the Irish boat, a participant at Thursday night's Cabinet meeting said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because the meeting was closed.

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