Free Gaza boat denied entry, claims navy fired shots

Crew regroups in Lebanon, plans to try again; Cyprus foreign minister vows to file complaint.

gaza boat in lebanon 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
gaza boat in lebanon 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
In a tense altercation early Tuesday morning, Israel Navy ships forcefully turned away a small Cypriot vessel piloted by members of the Free Gaza Movement, on its way to the Gaza Strip. After resisting orders from the navy to turn around, the small boat collided with an Israeli ship and began taking on water. It then docked in Lebanon for repairs, and the crew was reportedly preparing to board a larger vessel to mount another attempt to enter Gaza. The boat, called the SS Dignity, was welcomed in a statement by Lebanese president Michel Suleiman and by a small crowd of cheering Lebanese citizens. Free Gaza's landfall in Lebanon coincided with angry statements from Cyprus' Foreign Minister Markos Kyprianou, who vowed to lodge a formal complaint with Israel over the damaging of a boat carrying Cypriot nationals. Free Gaza claimed the Israeli ships had fired warning shots at the vessel before ramming it, an allegation the navy denied. According to IDF Spokeswoman Maj. Avital Leibovich, it was the Free Gaza vessel that, after receiving instructions to turn around, had chosen to ram a navy ship, damaging both craft. Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said the boat had ignored an Israeli radio order to turn back. He said the boat tried to outmaneuver a navy ship and had crashed into it, lightly damaging both vessels. The navy then escorted the boat out into the territorial waters of Cyprus. However, passengers and crew aboard the SS Dignity disputed this account. "We were prevented from entering Gaza... by Israeli patrol boats that tracked us for about 30 minutes. They shone their spotlight on us and then all of a sudden they rammed us approximately three times, twice in the front and once in the side," said Cynthia McKinney, the United States Green Party presidential candidate for 2008. "Communications from the Israelis indicated that we were involved in terrorist activities... I presume that's why they rammed our boat," she added. The boat's British captain, Denis Healey, said the Israeli action had come "without any warning or any provocation." Angela Godfrey-Goldstein, a member of Free Gaza's media team, said that "it was foolish for [Israel] to attack a civilian boat in international waters and then try to cover it up." She said journalists aboard the boat had filmed the incident and would release footage when possible. Including its most recent voyage, Free Gaza has sent seven boats to the embattled territory, carrying a combination of humanitarian aid, journalists, physicians and politicians. The most recent outing included three doctors, three tons of medical supplies, two international journalists from CNN and Al-Jazeera and a number of politicians - including McKinney and Cypriot lawmaker and surgeon Eleni Theocharous. Free Gaza accused the IDF of attacking a ship that had already identified itself as a mercy mission, both by radio at the time and in press releases distributed the day before. The IDF denied any such identification had been given. Speaking to The Jerusalem Post by phone from Gaza, Free Gaza ground coordinator Ewa Jasiewicz believed that another attempt to breach the sea blockade was imminent. "After the crew docks in Lebanon, there are plans to board a larger cargo vessel and come right back," she said, though she would not reveal whether the group's strategy for penetrating the sea defenses had changed. Leibovich was skeptical. "The Israel Navy is part of the Gaza operation," she said, meaning that it would be constantly stationed just off the coast. "I don't think they have a chance of getting in." Leibovich said the IDF considered the incident a "provocation," a charge that Jasiewicz denied. "This shouldn't be seen as a provocation, but as a model for intervention on a larger scale," she said, adding that Free Gaza hoped to see similar efforts from international relief organizations around the world. The last such mission carried a delegation of officials from Qatar, which maintains ties to both Israel and Hamas. Should the Free Gaza delegation gain entry, Jasiewicz said, they would be taken to a number of prominent conflict zones, including Shifa Hospital, the Ministry of Health, and blast zones like the Gaza City police station. They would also be invited to meet with various Palestinian non-government organizations doing relief work within the Strip. "We have sadness in our hearts that we could not reach our people in Gaza, but we will continue the journey until we meet them," said Sami al-Hajj, one of the activists on board. Hajj, a cameraman for the pan-Arab Al-Jazeera Television, spent six years in US custody at Guantanamo Bay before being freed earlier this year. Also Tuesday, the Lebanese government decided to offer $1 million in aid for the Palestinian victims of the assault on Gaza. Information Minister Tarek Mitri said Wednesday would be a national day of mourning for the Palestinian casualties. AP contributed to this report.