Israel intercepts another Gaza aid ship

Israeli warships early Saturday intercepted another aid supply ship sailed by pro-Palestinian activists as it headed toward the Gaza Strip in an attempt to break Israel’s naval blockade of the seaside territory.

Shortly after dawn, Israeli naval vessels began shadowing the cargo vessel — named Rachel Corrie after the pro-Palestinian activist from the U.S. who was killed in Gaza in 2003 — and jammed satellite communications, activists said.

“We are not afraid,” said Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mairead Corrigan Maguire, who is aboard the ship, in a telephone interview with Al Jazeera television shortly before the interception. “Everyone on the boat is very calm.”

Israeli military officials had no immediate comment early Saturday.

Organizers said they had no reports of violence or of the ship being boarded. In the hours before the takeover, activists and authorities expressed optimism that the high-seas showdown would not turn violent like Monday’s confrontation with the Mavi Marmara, lead ship of an earlier flotilla. During that clash, nine activists were killed and dozens of people were injured, including several Israeli commandos.

The latest ship is carrying 21 people and 1,200 tons of medical supplies and construction materials to help rebuild schools and hospitals in Gaza, according to officials with the Free Gaza Movement, the advocacy group organizing the shipments.

“Our action is partly to bring needed aid,” said Ramzi Kysia, the movement’s coordinator. “But the aid we are bringing is a drop in the bucket. What we need is an end to the blockade and to draw attention to the policies that are forcing Gazans into poverty and aid dependency.”

Israel, which is still reeling from the international condemnation over the deadly seizure of the Turkish-flagged Mavi Marmara on Monday, vowed to prevent the latest boat, which originated in Ireland and is sailing under a Cambodian flag, from reaching Gaza and to force it to the Israeli port of Ashdod.

The governments of Malaysia and Ireland, whose citizens make up the majority of the passengers, have called on Israel to use restraint. Eager to avoid more negative publicity, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has urged the military to do its best to avoid casualties.

Late Friday, the White House sent word to the crew of the Rachel Corrie, and any other aid ships that may be on their way to Gaza, to deliver their cargo through the port at Ashdod.

National Security Council spokesman Mike Hammer said the administration is working with Israel, the Palestinian Authority and other international partners to promote the delivery of aid to Gaza while preventing the import of weapons. “The current arrangements are unsustainable and must be changed,” he said.

Israel has blamed Monday’s deaths on Turkish activists, saying they attacked troops with knives and iron bars shortly after the commandos boarded the ship. The U.S. government and the U.N. Security Council are calling for an independent inquiry.

Some passengers aboard the Rachel Corrie have said they would not resist an Israeli takeover.

One criticized the actions of the Mavi Marmara activists, who fought off Israeli soldiers for several minutes, throwing one commando off a deck.

“That is not part of the game,” former U.N. Assistant Secretary-General Denis Halliday told Al Jazeera on Friday from the Rachel Corrie. “The Turkish peace [activists] broke the rules. If you do that, you lose control, and you get panic and chaos and death. We are not going to do that.”

The Free Gaza Movement rejected Israeli offers to accept the humanitarian aid in Ashdod and transfer it to Gaza by land, saying that Israel has reneged on other such promises and transfers only a portion of the aid. Israel has been reluctant to allow medical equipment, toys, luxury items and construction materials such as cement into Gaza, saying the latter material could be used to build bomb shelters.

Meanwhile on Friday, Turkey signaled that it would scale back economic and military cooperation with Israel but was careful not to sever ties.

“We are serious about this subject,” Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said. “We may plan to reduce our relations with Israel to a minimum, but to assume everything involving another country is stopped in an instant, to say we have crossed you out of our address book, is not the custom of our state.”

In Washington, however, Turkey’s ambassador to the United States, Namik Tan, said at a news conference that to avert a formal split, Israel needed to formally apologize, lift the embargo on Gaza and accept an international investigation into the raid on the Turkish-flagged ship.

A senior Israeli official said Israel would do none of it.

“Israel is not going to apologize for this … for defending ourselves,” said the official, who declined to be identified.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday described Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza, as “resistance fighters” and quoted from Scripture in another denunciation of the raid. In a televised speech to members of his AK Party, the prime minister said of Israel, “I am speaking to them in their own language. The Sixth Commandment says, ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ Did you not understand?”

With such statements, Turkey’s popularity is surging in Gaza City. At the port, more than 100 Turkish flags were hoisted as a sign of gratitude. During a speech Friday to commemorate the Turkish citizens who died on the Mavi Marmara, Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh praised the Turkish people and their leader.

“Mr. Erdogan, the message has been received by the people of Gaza that your great people have broken the siege on Gaza,” Haniyeh said.

Turkey has a history of supporting Palestinians while also having forged a good relationship with Israel. During the first intifada in the 1980s, Turkey helped evacuate wounded Palestinians and treated them in Turkish hospitals.

Times staff writers Jeffrey Fleishman in Istanbul, Turkey, Borzou Daragahi in Beirut, Paul Richter in Washington and special correspondent Rushdi abu Alouf in Gaza City contributed to this report.