Israelis intercept another ship
Second seizure within a week goes off without incident
JERUSALEM – Learning hard lessons from Monday’s deadly raid of a pro-Palestinian aid flotilla, Israel’s navy Saturday seized without incident a second protest vessel trying to reach the shores of the Gaza Strip.
But even as Israel succeeded in preventing the boats from reaching their destination, it was struggling in the larger battle of defending its controversial blockade of Gaza to the outside world.
Israel’s handling of the high-seas interception that left nine activists dead Monday continued to reverberate internationally. Anti-Israel protesters marched through London on Saturday. Swedish dockworkers are threatening to boycott Israeli ships in a weeklong protest. Vietnam canceled a scheduled visited by Israeli President Shimon Peres.
Although the aid ships were intercepted, the back-to-back challenges to the blockade by the pro-Palestinian advocacy group Free Gaza have turned an international spotlight on Israel’s policies in Gaza.
“This is an historic opportunity,” said Chris Gunness, spokesman of United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which aids Palestinian refugees. “The outrageous tragedy on the high seas has put world attention on the blockade and built considerable political momentum around opening the sea and land routes.”
Israeli officials say the restrictions, imposed in 2007, are necessary to prevent weapons from entering the coastal enclave and to isolate Hamas, the militant Palestinian group that controls Gaza and refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu alleged Saturday that without the naval blockade, Islamic extremists would turn Gaza into an “Iranian port.”
But most in the international community view Israel’s restrictions, which include tight controls over the movement of goods and people over land borders, as excessive.
The Obama administration says it is working behind the scenes to prod Netanyahu to relax the policy.
Turkey, once an important Muslim ally for Israel, is threatening to break off diplomatic relations unless the siege is lifted.
Netanyahu’s government has kept a public stance of defiance.
But in recent days, his Cabinet has begun quietly considering ways to relax some of the restrictions to permit more humanitarian supplies into Gaza, officials said.
Israel is also considering easing the naval blockade in return for some kind of international monitoring group that would inspect all vessels heading to Gaza, Israeli news media report.
Netanyahu praised his military’s latest takeover of the Cambodian-flagged Rachel Corrie.
The ship has 11 passengers – including Irish Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mairead Corrigan and a former U.N. deputy secretary-general – and 1,200 tons of medical and construction supplies.
The standoff had a dramatically different ending than Monday’s raid of the Turkish-flagged Mavi Marmara, where nine of the 680 passengers were killed when they tried to fight off Israeli commandos.
Rather than a nighttime raid in which commandos rappelled from helicopters, as occurred during the first raid, Saturday’s takeover of the Rachel Corrie started at daybreak, when Israeli ships began shadowing the vessel. They radioed several warnings before passengers agreed to allow Israeli soldiers aboard, military officials said.