Seeking to Test Blockade, New Set of Activists Heads to Gaza

JACK HEALY
Friday, June 4, 2010

Another ship seeking to test Israel’s blockade of Gaza was steaming toward that Palestinian enclave on Friday, setting the stage for another confrontation with the Israeli military less than a week after Israel’s deadly raid on an flotilla of activists.

Members of the Free Gaza Movement, a pro-Palestinian group that has organized efforts to breach the blockade, said they expected the cargo ship would reach Gaza by Saturday morning. Activists have said they would not put up resistance if their ship was boarded or intercepted by Israel.

“If they do come on board, we’ll be nice,” said Faizal Azumu, a passenger who answered a satellite telephone on board the ship on Friday evening local time. “We don’t want any problems.”

The last attempt by hundreds of activists to breach Israel’s blockade ended in a bloody clash on Monday, with nine civilian activists dead after Israeli commandos boarded a Turkish ship. The violence touched off a furor in Turkey and much of the Middle East and intensified calls for Israel to end its three-year blockade of the Gaza Strip.

Israel has vowed to prevent the 1,200-ton ship, the Rachel Corrie, from landing in Gaza to deliver its cargo of construction materials, paper and other supplies.

But the Israeli Foreign Ministry released a statement on Friday saying it had no interest in boarding the ship, according to Ynet News, an Israeli news Web site. The Israeli government offered to unload the vessel’s cargo at the port in Ashdod in southern Israel and transport it to Gaza — a similar offer to the one it made to activists in the aid convoy that was attacked on Monday.

Activists have rejected the Israeli government’s offer to change course, and said they would continue to sail toward Gaza, but they also said they would act peacefully.

After the botched raid on the flotilla this week, Israel said that the commandos who fired on activists had done so in self-defense after being attacked with clubs and knives.

Members of the Free Gaza Movement have offered conflicting estimates of when the vessel would near Gaza, with one saying Thursday that the ship would not approach the territory this weekend. But on Friday, Mr. Azumu said that the ship was about 125 miles from Gaza and that the passengers hoped to reach their destination by Saturday morning.

Mairead McGuire, a Nobel Peace laureate who was on the ship, told The Associated Press that the activists would “sit down” if Israeli forces came on board. “They will probably arrest us,” she said. “But there will be no resistance.”

Faced with growing criticism, Israel has defended its blockade as crucial to preventing missiles and weapons from flowing into Gaza, where Hamas won elections in 2006 and then wrested total control in 2007. But an Israeli official acknowledged Thursday that the government was looking at other ways of allowing civilian goods to reach Gaza while still screening for weapons.

On Friday, three more activists who had been wounded this week in clashes aboard the Turkish ship, the Mavi Marmara, returned to Turkey, where public anger at Israel has brought relations between the two countries to their nadir.

A day earlier, as hundreds of activists detained after the raid were flown back to Turkey, several thousand people streamed through Istanbul in a procession to mourn the activists killed in the raid. Eight of the dead were Turkish, and one was an American citizen of Turkish descent.

The fiery language from Turkish leaders continued Friday, according to news reports from Ankara. Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc, told Turkish television that Turkey could reduce its relations with Israel “to a minimum,” and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused Israel of breaking the Biblical commandment against killing.