Aid ship enters port after Israeli takeover
The Rachel Corrie aid ship docked in Israel on Saturday after being prevented from reaching Gaza, with no repetition of the bloody violence that erupted when commandos stormed another aid boat earlier in the week.
The Irish-owned 1,200-tonne vessel was escorted into the southern port of Ashdod by two naval launches some five hours after being commandeered by Israeli forces when it ignored orders not to head for Gaza.
Israel hailed the peaceful end to the operation, but the pro-Palestinian organisers accused Israel of "hijacking" the ship.
The military said its forces boarded the vessel -- named after a US activist killed in 2003 as she tried to prevent an Israeli bulldozer from razing a Palestinian home -- "with the full compliance" of those on board.
"Our forces boarded the boat and took control without meeting any resistance from the crew or the passengers. Everything took place without violence," a spokeswoman told AFP.
The army said the ship was carrying 11 pro-Palestinian activists and eight crew, while organisers said there are five Irish citizens on board, including Nobel Peace Prize winner Mairead Maguire, and six Malaysians.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the operation.
"We saw today the difference between a ship of peace activists, with whom we don't agree but respect their right to a different opinion from ours, and between a ship of hate organised by violent Turkish terror extremists," he said.
Saturday's outcome stood in stark contrast to a botched navy operation against a six-ship flotilla on Monday, which ended in the deaths of nine activists -- eight Turks and a US-Turkish citizen.
But the latest takeover prompted a furious response from the Dublin-based Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign.
"For the second time in less then a week, Israeli forces stormed and hijacked an unarmed aid ship, kidnapping its passengers and forcing the ship toward Ashdod port," it said.
Army spokeswoman Avital Leibovitz insisted the operation was peaceful.
"They didn't storm the ship -- they boarded it with the agreement" of those on board, she told AFP, saying the boat had been taken over in international waters some 21 nautical miles northwest of Ashdod.
The operation began shortly after dawn when activists on the vessel said they had been surrounded by Israeli naval boats. Shortly afterwards, all communications were severed.
The Rachel Corrie was carrying around 1,000 tonnes of aid and supplies, half of which was reportedly cement which is barred by Israel for fear it could be used to build fortifications.
In Gaza City a senior Hamas official said the Israeli blockade was on the verge of collapse.
"We are in the last 15 minutes of the siege," Ahmed Yussef told AFP.
"There will be a lot of ships sent to Gaza by international solidarity organisations in the next few weeks in the name of justice and human rights."
Saturday's operation came at a sensitive time, with Israel diplomatically isolated after Monday's deadly raid.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Philip Crowley told reporters the United States was in touch with Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Ireland to "avoid a repeat of Monday's... tragic events."
That raid unleashed fury, especially in Turkey where on Saturday an estimated 10,000 people protested in Istanbul.
"Murderer Israel!" chanted demonstrators, many wearing headbands reading: "Keep your hands off the boats!" in Hebrew and English.
Turkish prosecutors are reportedly examining the possibility of prosecuting the Israeli leadership over the raid.
And UN human rights chief issue Navi Pillay said she was following up requests to prosecute Israel at the International Criminal Court.
In London, several thousand demonstrators gathered in central London waving Palestinian flags and chanting: "Stop Israel piracy!"
Demonstrators also protested in Dublin to vent their anger at Israel for blocking the ship.
In Lebanon, two pro-Palestinian groups launched a fund-raising campaign to buy a ship which they hoped to sail to Gaza next week.
Farther afield, Vietnam postponed a visit by Israeli President Shimon Peres over the "complex current situation." He had been due in Hanoi on June 11.
Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos of Spain, which currently holds the rotating EU presidency, said he had spoken about Gaza with the office of the bloc's foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton.
"We spoke with the team of the chief (foreign) representative yesterday and we are going to make a proposal over the next few days so that situations like the ones that happened (this week) will not be repeated," he said.
© 2010 AFP