Israeli troops on Saturday took control of an Irish flagged aid ship bound for Gaza and forced it to head for the Israeli port of Ashdod.
“If this boat has been boarded [by Israelis], it has been boarded illegally yet again,” said Renee Jaouadi, spokeswoman for the Free Gaza Movement, which had organised the voyage. The ship MV Rachel Corrie, named after a young American woman who was crushed to death in Gaza in 2003 by an Israeli bulldozer, was ferrying hundreds of tonnes to humanitarian aid for besieged Gaza residents. On board the Malaysian-funded ship were 11 pro-Palestinian activists, including Nobel peace prize winner Mairead Corrigan, accompanied by an eight-member crew.
Tensions ran high as the ship approached Gaza on account of fears that the Israeli troops would storm this ship as well. On Monday, Israeli commandos had assaulted the ship Mavi Maramara, causing nine deaths following shooting on board.
Before boarding Rachel Corrie on Saturday, Israeli naval ships tailed the ship for several hours. The ship's radar was jammed and all radio communication cut-off.
In a statement, the Israeli military said troops boarded the ship after activists aboard refused to heed warnings to divert the vessel to Ashdod.
“There was no violence or injuries amongst the soldiers or crew...and no shots were fired,” the statement added. Israeli officials said soldiers boarded the ship close to the Gaza maritime zone in agreement with the passengers.
Before the Israeli takeover of the vessel, Ms. Maguire said the group on board believed in non-violence. “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,” she said before radio contact with the ship was lost.
Israel is justifying taking the ship to Ashdod on the ground that it wished to inspect the contents of the aid material before it was sent to Gaza. However, Dennis Halliday, the former U.N. Assistant Secretary-General who was on board MV Rachel Corrie dismissed the Israeli argument. “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 added that the cargo had been sealed and even “we can't even access it ourselves”.
In Washington, the United States said Israel's embargo on Gaza was unsustainable. “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,” said Mike Hammer, a spokesman for the White House National Security Council, in a statement.
Meanwhile, there was no let up in the protests triggered by Monday's deadly assault.
Swedish dockworkers announced that they would begin a weeklong blockade of Israeli ships and goods arriving in the country. On Saturday, thousands of protestors took to the streets in Australia, with Sydney witnessing the largest turnout. Demonstrations also took place in several cities in New Zealand, during which U.S. and Israeli flags were burnt.