Israel says it will block aid ship from Ireland

Israeli naval commandos seized an aid flotilla bound for the Gaza Strip on May 31, killing at least nine and wounding dozens, and sparking protests and condemnations around the world.
By Janine Zacharia and Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, June 5, 2010

JERUSALEM -- Israel pledged Friday to stop an Irish humanitarian aid ship from reaching the Gaza Strip after activists on board refused requests to unload its cargo at an Israeli port. The Rachel Corrie was due to arrive off Israel's coast on Saturday.

Israel stressed that it had "no desire for a confrontation" after the clashes aboard a Turkish ship this week in which nine civilians, including a U.S. citizen, died. Officials said Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was weighing possible changes that might allow some aid vessels to reach Gaza if they first submitted to inspections in non-Israeli ports.

Netanyahu has rejected calls to lift the blockade of Gaza, which the Israel government says is intended to prevent the development of weapons that can be used for cross-border attacks and to isolate and marginalize the anti-Hamas regime.

But the international pressure that followed the deadly raid aboard the Turkish ship appears to be pushing the prime minister toward changes that might soften the Israeli approach, by providing for international inspections of the aid shipments and by revising the terms of an economic embargo to permit delivery of items that do not pose a security risk.

Possible changes

A person familiar with the conversations said Netanyahu had spoken with U.S. and British officials Friday to discuss possible changes. "We're exploring additional ways to implement our goals, and the goals are first, to prevent arms reaching Hamas," an Israeli official said.

The Rachel Corrie was supposed to be part of the aid flotilla that arrived off the Mediterranean coast early Monday and was taken over by Israeli forces. The ship was delayed by technical problems.

A second confrontation appeared unlikely in part because the Irish vessel includes 11 passengers and eight crew members, far fewer than the 600 passengers who were aboard the Turkish vessel. Still, the White House on Friday echoed Israel's call for the Rachel Corrie to sail to the port of Ashdod.

Those aboard include an Irish Nobel peace laureate, a former U.N. diplomat and a best-selling Malaysian author.

Before the Jewish Sabbath began in Israel Friday, Netanyahu convened his top ministers to discuss calls for an international inquiry into Israel's actions on Monday. Israel, skeptical it can get a fair hearing by an outside panel, would prefer to conduct an internal military review.

With the Rachel Corrie en route, Israel continued to feel the repercussions from the botched raid, particularly in its relations with Turkey, which threatened to cut ties with Israel. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivered tough remarks in a televised speech on Friday, and the Turkish ambassador to the United States said Israel "first and foremost'' needs to apologize for the deaths.

"Israel cannot find any better friend in the region than Turkey,'' Namik Tan, the ambassador, told a small group of reporters. "And Israel is about to lose that friend." He said Ankara continues to be "disappointed" that the Obama administration has not condemned Israel's actions.

Israel: No apology

A senior Israeli official rejected the demand for an apology, saying "our soldiers are not going to apologize for defending themselves from a murderous assault." The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he did not want to engage in a tit-for-tat with Turkey, also rejected the call for a international probe.

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