05 June 2010

Gaza aid ship taken to Israeli port

Israeli soldiers have boarded an aid ship bound for the Gaza Strip and forced it to head to the Israeli port of Ashdod instead.

The Israeli military said in a statement that troops boarded MV Rachel Corrie on Saturday after activists aboard the ship ignored warnings to divert to Ashdod.

"There was no violence or injuries amongst the soldiers or crew ... and no shots were fired," the statement said.

Jacky Rowland, Al Jazeera's correspondent in the Israeli port of Ashdod, said the ship had arrived at the port, escorted all the way by Israeli military vessels.

"The aid will be taken off and inspected," Rowland said.

"It is not clear how much of it will be taken to Gaza. We can expect the passengers to be deported fairly promptly."

Activists on board the Malaysia-funded Irish ship were attempting to break the siege of Gaza imposed by Israel, five days after Israeli troops violently intercepted a flotilla of aid ships carrying humanitarian aid for the territory, killing nine activists.

Israeli naval vessels trailed the ship for several hours before boarding it. Rachel Corrie's radar were also jammed, cutting off all radio communication.

Israeli statement

Miri Eisin, a spokeswoman for the Israeli government, told Al Jazeera that the ship was boarded by soldiers at the edge of the maritime zone of Gaza in agreement with those on board.

"The people on board will be taken care off in accordance with Israeli law, as they have approached Israel illegally, so they will be asked to leave voluntarily," she said.

Eisin said the cargo would be offloaded at Ashdod and then transferred to Gaza.

Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, said naval forces involved in Saturday's operation had followed exactly the same procedures as they had done earlier in the week, but the difference lay in the attitude of the activists on board the vessel.

"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 ... waiting for our soldiers on the deck with axes and knives," Netanyahu's office cited him as saying.

Raising awareness

On the other hand, Mukhriz Mahathir, head of the Perdana Global Peace Organisation, a Malaysian non-governmental organisation that sponsored the Rachel Corrie, said people would be willing to contribute to further aid ships.

"These actions have finally succeded in raising lots of awareness," he said.

"But for the moment, we are upset that these aid goods have not reached their destination."

The developments surrounding the Rachel Corrie came as the UN human-rights chief said that Israel could face prosecution for the deadly flotilla raid, and that she was following requests for a referral to the International Criminal Court [ICC] in the Hague.

The UN human rights chief said Israel could face prosecution for its raid on aid ships [AFP]

"I am following very closely the very many calls that come particularly from civil society and from all the people who are suffering in Palestine for that kind of action to be taken," Navi Pillay, the high commissioner for human rights, said in Kampala, Uganda, where she attended the ICC's ongoing review conference.

She said she believed Israel's blockade of Gaza violates international law.

"International humanitarian law prohibits starvation of civilians as a method of warfare ... It is also prohibited to impose collective punishment on the civilian population, so it is [for those reasons] that I have consistently reported to member states that the blockade is illegal and must be lifted," Pillay said.

"Even if it is demonstrated that the blockade is legal under international law, Israel's current military operations against the flotilla must be analysed from the perspective of its obligation to allow humanitarian aid to be brought into the Gaza strip."

Pro-Palestinian activists had earlier said they were determined to press ahead towards the Gaza coast, despite the Israeli warnings.

"We are not afraid and we are all advocating non-violence… and we will just sit here and go if they insist on commandeering our boat and forcing us into Ashdod," Mairead Maguire, an activist and Nobel Peace laureate aboard Rachel Corrie, said before radio contact with the ship was lost.

Military warning

The Israeli military had cautioned that troops would consider storming the ship, if it continued its journey towards Gaza.

In a statement, the Israel navy warned the ship that it was "approaching an area of hostilities which is under a naval blockade. The Gaza area, coastal region and Gaza Harbour are closed to all maritime traffic."

Avital Leibovich, an Israeli military spokeswoman, told Al Jazeera that the military had a government directive to make sure the ship does not reach Gaza.

Israel's raid of Gaza-bound aid ships has led to global protests against its siege on Gaza [AFP]

Al Jazeera's Nicole Johnston, reporting from Gaza, said the ship had hundreds of tonnes of aid, including medical supplies, wheelchairs, cement, building materials and even note-pads for children.

Dennis Halliday, the former UN assistant secretary-general who is also on board the ship, said on Friday that they expected Israeli military to intercept them.

"The cargo was checked three times - by trade unions in Ireland, by a member of the Irish senate, as well as Irish customs at the port," he said.

"The cargo is sealed and we can't even access it ourselves," he said, explaining why they refused to take the ship to Ashdod.

The ship, carrying 11 activists and eight crew members, is named after an American woman who was killed by an Israeli military bulldozer in the Gaza Strip in 2003, while trying to protest a house demolition.

Meanwhile in Washington the US said Israel's blockade on Gaza was unsustainable.

"We are working urgently with Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and other international partners to develop new procedures for delivering more goods and assistance to Gaza," Mike Hammer, a spokesman for the White House National Security Council, said in a statement.

"The current arrangements are unsustainable and must be changed. For now, we call on all parties to join us in encouraging responsible decisions by all sides to avoid any unnecessary confrontations."

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies


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