Learning hard lessons from Monday’s deadly raid of a pro-Palestinian aid flotilla, Israel’s navy Saturday seized without incident a second protest vessel trying to reach the shores of the Gaza Strip.
But even as Israel succeeded in preventing the boats from reaching their destination, it was struggling in the larger battle of defending its controversial blockade of Gaza to the outside world.
Israel’s handling of the high-seas interception Monday that left nine activists dead continued to reverberate. Anti-Israel protesters marched through London on Saturday. Swedish dockworkers are threatening to boycott Israeli ships in a weeklong protest. Vietnam canceled a scheduled visit by Israeli President Shimon Peres.
Although the aid ships were intercepted, the back-to-back challenges to the blockade by the pro-Palestinian advocacy group Free Gaza have turned an international spotlight on Israel’s policies in Gaza.
“This is an historic opportunity,” said Chris Gunness, spokesman of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which aids Palestinian refugees. “The outrageous tragedy on the high seas has put world attention on the blockade and built considerable political momentum around opening the sea and land routes.”
Israeli officials say the restrictions, imposed in 2007, are necessary to prevent weapons from entering the coastal enclave and to isolate Hamas, the militant Palestinian group that controls Gaza and refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu alleged Saturday that without the naval blockade, Islamic extremists would turn Gaza into an “Iranian port.”
But most in the international community view Israel’s restrictions, which include tight controls on the movement of goods and people over land borders, as excessive.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called Israel’s restrictions “wrong” and “counterproductive.” A U.S. National Security Council spokesman Friday called the blockade “unsustainable.”
The Obama administration says it is working behind the scenes to prod Netanyahu to relax the policy.
Turkey, once an important Muslim ally for Israel, is threatening to break off diplomatic relations unless the siege is lifted.
Netanyahu’s government has kept a public stance of defiance. “Israel will continue to exercise its right to self-defense,” Netanyahu said in a statement Saturday after the latest ship seizure.
But his Cabinet recently has begun quietly considering ways to relax some of the restrictions to permit more humanitarian supplies into Gaza, officials said.
Israel is also considering easing the naval blockade in return for some kind of international monitoring group that would inspect all vessels heading to Gaza, according to Israeli news reports.
Netanyahu praised his military’s latest takeover of the Cambodian-flagged Rachel Corrie, named for the American activist killed in 2003 by an Israeli bulldozer in Gaza.
The ship has 11 passengers — including Irish Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mairead Corrigan and a former U.N. deputy secretary-general — and 1,200 tons of medical and construction supplies.
The standoff had a dramatically different ending than Monday’s raid of the Turkish-flagged Mavi Marmara, where nine of the 680 passengers were killed when they tried to fight off Israeli commandos.
Rather than a nighttime raid in which commandos rappelled from helicopters, as occurred during the first raid, Saturday’s takeover of the Rachel Corrie started at daybreak, when Israeli ships began shadowing the vessel. They radioed several warnings before passengers agreed to allow Israeli soldiers aboard, military officials said.
Israeli military accounts could not yet be verified with activists, who were cut off from their telephones and journalists. They were expected to be deported.
Israel said that the cargo aboard the Rachel Corrie, after being inspected by authorities, would be forwarded by land to Gaza. But it remained unclear how much of the cargo would make it into Gaza because of Israel’s restrictions on which goods are allowed.
The aid cargo includes 500 tons of cement, which is tightly restricted by Israel.
Critics say the list of goods banned by Israel is arbitrary and contradictory.
Cinnamon is allowed, but coriander is banned, according to Gisha, an Israeli advocacy group that has challenged the restrictions in court. Oil is OK, but not vinegar. Canned fruit is prohibited, but not canned vegetables.
Israeli officials argue that many of the banned goods are “luxury” items or those that could have “dual-use” purposes, saying Hamas could use cement to build bomb shelters and pipes and nails to make homemade rockets.
Aid groups say the policy has done little to weaken Hamas, which continues to rearm itself through illegal smuggling tunnels from Egypt. Instead, the restrictions have devastated Gaza’s economy and left 80% of Gazans dependent on international aid.