Israeli commandos boarded a Gaza-bound aid ship, the Rachel Corrie, without incident on Saturday and escorted it to the Israeli port of Ashdod after it failed to heed earlier warnings not to defy the Israeli embargo on the Hamas-ruled enclave.
AFP - The Rachel Corrie aid ship docked on Saturday in Israel after being intercepted by the navy and prevented from reaching Gaza, with no repetition of the bloody violence when commandos stormed another aid boat earlier in the week.
The Irish-owned 1,200-tonne vessel was escorted into the southern port of Ashdod by two naval launches some five hours after being commandeered by Israeli forces when it ignored orders not to head for Gaza.
Israel said the operation was peaceful while the pro-Palestinian organisers accused the Jewish state of "hijacking" the ship.
The military said its forces boarded the vessel -- named after a US activist killed in 2003 as she tried to prevent an Israeli bulldozer from razing a Palestinian home -- "with the full compliance" of those on board.
"Our forces boarded the boat and took control without meeting any resistance from the crew or the passengers. Everything took place without violence," a spokeswoman told AFP.
The army said the ship was carrying 11 pro-Palestinian activists and eight crew, while organisers said there are five Irish citizens on board, including Nobel Peace Prize winner Mairead Maguire, and six Malaysians.
"All these people will be questioned before being expelled as soon as possible," Sabine Haddad, spokeswoman for immigration services, told AFP, adding that they were taken to the Holon immigration centre near Tel Aviv.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the operation.
"We saw today the difference between a ship of peace activists, with whom we don't agree but respect their right to a different opinion from ours, and between a ship of hate organised by violent Turkish terror extremists," he said.
FRANCE 24 speaks to Israeli army spokesman Edouard Cukierman in Ashdod and Hamas spokesman Youssef Rezqa.
But the latest takeover prompted a furious response from the Dublin-based Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign.
"For the second time in less then a week, Israeli forces stormed and hijacked an unarmed aid ship, kidnapping its passengers and forcing the ship toward Ashdod port," it said.
Army spokeswoman Avital Leibovitz insisted the operation was peaceful.
"They didn't storm the ship -- they boarded it with the agreement" of those on board, she told AFP, saying the boat had been taken over in international waters some 21 nautical miles northwest of Ashdod.
The operation began shortly after dawn when activists on the vessel said it had been surrounded by Israeli naval boats. Shortly afterwards, all communications were severed.
The Rachel Corrie was carrying around 1,000 tonnes of aid and supplies, half of which was reportedly cement which is barred by Israel which fears it could be used to build fortifications.
A senior Hamas official said the Israeli blockade was on the verge of collapse. "We are in the last 15 minutes of the siege," Ahmed Yussef told AFP.
"There will be a lot of ships sent to Gaza by international solidarity organisations in the next few weeks in the name of justice and human rights."
Saturday's operation came at a sensitive time, with Israel diplomatically isolated after Monday's deadly raid.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Philip Crowley told reporters the United States was in touch with Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Ireland to "avoid a repeat of Monday's... tragic events."
That raid unleashed fury, with several thousand people protesting across Europe on Saturday, including an estimated 10,000 in Istanbul.
"Murderer Israel!" chanted demonstrators in Turkey's largest city. Many wore headbands reading: "Keep your hands off the boats!" in Hebrew and English.
"The goal is to force Israel to re-think the Gaza blockade"
Angry protesters chanting anti-Israeli slogans and waving Palestinian and Turkish flags also took to the streets of Dublin, Edinburgh, London and Paris as well as other French cities.
In Lebanon, two pro-Palestinian groups launched a fund-raising campaign to buy a ship which they hoped to sail to Gaza next week.
Farther afield, Vietnam postponed a visit by Israeli President Shimon Peres over the "complex current situation." He had been due in Hanoi on June 11.
UN human rights chief issue Navi Pillay said she was following up requests to prosecute Israel at the International Criminal Court.
Meanwhile a Turkish official said Monday's deadly raid was likely to be discussed at a security summit of Asian leaders on Tuesday in Istanbul, to which Israel has also been invited although it has not responded yet.
Date created : 2010-06-05