x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Israeli warships tail Gaza-bound aid vessel

A Gaza-bound aid ship approaching the blockaded Palestinian territory is being tailed by three Israeli naval boats.

A Gaza-bound aid ship was just a few dozen kilometres from the blockaded Palestinian territory early today, and was being tailed by three Israeli naval boats, according to a pro-Palestinian activist. The group that sent the ship said it had lost contact with the vessel, but the Israeli military said it had not taken it over. The activists' latest attempt to crack the blockade will test Israel's resolve as it faces a wave of international outrage over its deadly takeover of another aid ship earlier this week.

The Israeli military had no comment on its plans. Diplomatic fallout and protests across Europe and the Muslim world have increased pressure to end the embargo Israel imposed after the Islamic militant Hamas group seized power in Gaza three years ago. The blockade has plunged the territory's 1.5 million residents deeper into poverty and sharply raised Mideast tensions as the US makes a new push for regional peace.

Shortly after 5am Israel time, Greta Berlin of the Free Gaza movement that sent the 1,200-ton Rachel Corrie said the vessel was 56km from Gaza's shores. "There were two warships in the back of them ... and a smaller boat was approaching," Ms Berlin said from the movement's headquarters in Cyprus, citing a passenger on board. Israeli troops still had not boarded the Rachel Corrie nearly two hours later, and Free Gaza's lawyer, Audrey Bomse, said the Israeli vessels had not yet made contact with the activists' ship.

Activists on board the Irish boat, including a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, have insisted they would not resist if Israeli soldiers tried to take over their vessel. They rejected Israeli and US appeals to bring the ship to an Israeli port instead. The Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his Cabinet on Thursday the Irish boat would not be allowed to reach Gaza. On Friday, Israel's foreign minister said the policy had not changed.

"We have made it clear to the Irish and others, no ship will reach Gaza without a security inspection," the foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman told Channel 1 TV. The Cambodian-flagged Rachel Corrie - named for an American college student who was crushed to death by a bulldozer in 2003 while protesting Israeli house demolitions in Gaza - was carrying hundreds of tons of aid, including wheelchairs, medical supplies and cement.

This latest attempt to breach the blockade differs significantly from the flotilla the Israeli troops intercepted on Monday, killing eight Turks and an American after being set upon by a group of activists. Nearly 700 activists had joined that operation, most of them aboard the lead boat from Turkey that was the scene of the violence. That boat, the Mavi Marmara, was sponsored by an Islamic aid group from Turkey, the Foundation for Human Rights and Freedom and Humanitarian Relief. Israel outlawed the group, known by its Turkish acronym IHH, in 2008 because of alleged ties to Hamas. The group is not on the US State Department list of terror organisations, however.

By contrast, the Rachel Corrie was carrying just 11 passengers, whose effort was mainly sponsored by the Free Gaza movement, a Cyprus-based group that has renounced violence. Irish Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mairead Corrigan told The Associated Press from the ship on Friday that the group would offer no resistance if Israeli forces came aboard. "We will sit down," she said in a telephone interview. "They will probably arrest us ... But there will be no resistance."

Mr Netanyahu has instructed the Israeli military to avoid harming the passengers on board the Irish boat, a participant at Thursday night's Cabinet meeting said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because the meeting was closed. *AP