ISTANBUL // A cargo ship trying to break the blockade of Gaza could reach Israel's 32-kilometre exclusion zone by this afternoon, an activist said, as Israel's prime minister has vowed the ship will not reach land. Their duelling comments suggest a potential new clash over Israel's three-year-old blockade of the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip - and come only four days after an Israeli commando raid on a larger aid flotilla left nine activists dead.
Greta Berlin, a spokesman for the Free Gaza group, says the 1,200-ton Rachel Corrie is heading directly to Gaza and will not stop in any port on the way. It is trying to deliver hundreds of tons of aid including wheelchairs, medical supplies and concrete. The Irish vessel is named after an American college student crushed to death by an Israeli army bulldozer while protesting house demolitions in Gaza.
Israel will not allow the aid ship to reach Gaza, the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu told senior Cabinet ministers late on Thursday. According to a participant in the meeting, he said Israel made several offers to direct the ship to an Israeli port, where the aid supplies would be unloaded, inspected and transferred to Gaza overland, but the offers were rejected. Mr Netanyahu has ordered his military to prevent the ship from reaching Gaza, but he also instructed them to act with sensitivity and avoid harm to those on board the ship, the participant said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the meeting was closed.
In Istanbul, Turkey's deputy prime minister said today that economic and defence cooperation with Israel will be reduced amid tensions after the killing of nine Turkish activists by Israeli commandos on an aid ship. The deputy prime minister Bulent Arinc said all deals with Israel are being evaluated. "We are serious on this issue. New cooperation will not start and relations with Israel will be reduced," he said.
The deaths on the aid ship increased tensions in the Mideast, especially with Turkey, an important ally of Israel. On Thursday, prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called Israel's actions "a historic mistake." Israel maintains the commandos opened fire as a last resort after they were attacked, and released a video showing soldiers in riot gear descending from a helicopter into a crowd of men with clubs. Three or four activists overpowered each soldier as he landed.
Returning activists admitted fighting with the Israelis but insisted their actions were in self-defence because the ships were being boarded in international waters by a military force. Israel has rejected demands for an international panel to investigate the incident and Mr Netanyahu has hotly rejected calls to lift the blockade on Hamas-ruled Gaza, insisting it prevents missile attacks on Israel.
Thousands jammed Istanbul on Thursday to pay tribute to those killed on the ship at a funeral service outside the Fatih mosque, and larger services were expected on Friday. The youngest of the nine activists killed, Furkan Dogan, was to be buried Friday in his family's hometown in Kayseri in central Turkey. The youngster, who was born in Troy, New York, moved to Turkey when he was two. The other eight activists were all Turkish nationals.
Turkey sent two ambulance planes to Israel to bring home the last five Turkish activists who were wounded in the Israeli commando raid. * AP