Israel may allow future aid ships into Gaza after inspection

Commandos stop ‘Rachel Corrie’ peacefully.

June 6, 2010 04:54
4 minute read.
A Soldier helps Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mairead

Rachel Corrie 311. (photo credit: IDF)

The defense establishment is considering allowing future aid ships to sail into the Gaza Strip after their crews first agree to dock in Ashdod Port and undergo a military inspection to ensure that they are not carrying weaponry, officials said Saturday night.

The idea was one of several being “floated around” as Israel searches for a new policy to handle future flotillas in the wake of the international criticism it has been facing since Monday’s takeover of the Mavi Marmara. Commandos from the navy’s Flotilla 13 – known as the Shayetet – came under attack from a group of mercenaries aboard the ship and killed nine of them.

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Senior diplomatic sources said Saturday night that “nothing has been decided” but “there are a lot of ideas out there.” At the same time, one official said, the principle that Israel will not allow unchecked cargo into the Gaza Strip will not change.

He stressed that Israel has no problem letting civilian materials into Gaza, including cement – if they are intended for a clearly earmarked humanitarian project, and are monitored by an international agency. Israel, the official said, was “willing to explore new ideas,” but at the same time was intent on keeping the naval blockade in place.

Rachel Corrie boarded with no violence

On Saturday, commandos boarded the MV Rachel Corrie cargo ship as it made its way to the Gaza Strip in an attempt to break the Israel-imposed sea blockade. Navy forces then piloted the ship into Ashdod Port where its cargo will be unloaded and allowed, after inspection, to cross by land into the Gaza Strip.

The boarding took place without any violence and was carried out by sea and not by helicopters, like on Monday. Passengers aboard the Rachel Corrie – named for an American activist killed by an IDF bulldozer in the Gaza Strip in 2003 – even, according to the IDF, threw the boarding soldiers a rope off the side of the vessel.

Prior to the takeover, three navy ships tailed the aid boat for several hours throughout the morning, a few dozen kilometers from the blockaded Strip. The army said it had contacted the boat four times and urged its passengers to divert to Ashdod, but that the passengers had refused.

Eleven passengers were aboard the Rachel Corrie, including Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mairead Maguire and Denis Halliday, a former United Nations assistant secretary-general.

The Rachel Corrie was carrying 20 tons of paper, 550 tons of cement, 100 tons of high-end medical equipment including electric wheelchairs, hospital beds, a CAT scan machine and dental equipment as well as fabric and thread.

Netanyahu: We respect the right to express different opinions

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, meanwhile, was updated throughout the day on Saturday about the situation with the boat. He issued a statement after the boat was brought into the Ashdod Port, saying that “we saw today the difference between a boat with peace activists, with whom we do not agree but whose right to express their different opinions we respect, and a boat of hate organized by violent extremists and terrorist supporters.”

Netanyahu said that Israel operated in the same way with each of the different boats in order to implement the naval blockade to prevent the smuggling of arms to Hamas and to enable civilian goods to be brought into Gaza after being checked. He said that Israel would continue to maintain its right to self-defense and “not allow the establishment of an Iranian port in Gaza.”

The Free Gaza movement, which organized the flotilla, announced Saturday that it planned to send additional ships to break the blockade in the coming months.

“We are putting Mr. Netanyahu on notice that we are returning in the next couple of months with another flotilla, that his actions and the actions of his soldiers have energized thousands of people who have stepped forward with offers to help and participate on the next voyage,” the movement said in a statement.

The navy is also concerned that the Turkish government, which is suspected of support and involvement in the flotilla, will dispatch its navy to accompany future aid ships to the Gaza Strip.

“This is an event of diplomatic significance,” a top defense official said.

Irish FM offers plan for delivering aid to Gaza

Irish Foreign Minister Micheál Martin, meanwhile, issued a statement Friday saying that an understanding with Israel was reached whereby the Rachel Corrie would have approached Israel’s “exclusion zone” before being diverted to Ashdod.

Under the plan, Martin said, “the cargo would have been unloaded and inspected under the supervision of the UN and officials from the Irish Aid Division of my department. The entire cargo, including what is understood to be 550 tons of cement, would then have been transported to Gaza. Two persons from the Rachel Corrie would have been permitted to accompany the cargo to the Israeli border crossing into Gaza at Erez.”

Martin said that the arrangement would have “offered a useful precedent for future humanitarian shipments, pending the complete lifting of the blockade.” It was, however, turned down by those on the boat.

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