Israel says it will block aid ship from Ireland

By Janine Zacharia and Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, June 5, 2010; A07

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.

For Israel, there have also been repercussions at home, most significantly in heightened tensions between Jewish and Arab Israelis. On Friday, a cabinet minister sought to revoke the citizenship of an Arab Israeli parliament member who sailed on the Turkish vessel and later said publicly Israel had committed a "massacre.'' Arab Israelis make up one-fifth of Israel's population.

Israel has strongly defended its raid on the flotilla. On Friday, senior Israeli officials in Washington briefed a small group of reporters about Operation "Sea Breeze." Members of the Israeli military, they said, spent four hours trying to persuade the 300-foot-long Turkish ship to shift course away from Gaza. He said the activists responded repeatedly with shouts -- "Go back to Auschwitz!" -- and kept the ship at its maximum speed of 10 knots.

The officials insist they had no choice but to enforce the blockade of Gaza, controlled by the Hamas militant group, because allowing selective ships to pass would have rendered it legally meaningless. "Either you have a blockade or not," one military official said.

Turkish officials have angrily said that the blockade is illegal, that the assault should not have taken place in international waters and that the use of force was disproportionate and even criminal.

The Israeli officials conceded that their intelligence was poor. They thought the soldiers would encounter protesters who might, at worst, chain themselves to prevent access to the ship's control room. The soldiers were equipped with paintball guns and beanbags, and also "low-velocity" pistols to protect themselves, the officials said.

Kessler reported from Washington.

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