Israeli naval forces boarded an Irish-owned ship bound for Gaza today, just five days after killing nine passengers in a bloody raid on a previous aid convoy.
The commandos boarded the ship "with the full compliance" of the crew and passengers without any of the violence that had marked the storming of the Turkish ferry Mavi Marmara on Monday, Israeli officials said.
"Our forces boarded the boat and took control without meeting any resistance from the crew or the passengers. Everything took place without violence," a military spokeswoman said.
The MV Rachel Corrie, carrying 20 passengers and crew as well as humanitarian aid for Gaza, had ignored orders not to break the three-year blockade of the Palestinian enclave that has been enforced by Israel and Egypt.
Once Israeli forces had taken control of the small vessel, they steered it towards the southern Israeli port of Ashdod, several hours sailing away.
The military said the goods would be transferred to Gaza through the land crossings it controls, although aid groups have complained that not all the items from previously-seized convoys had been delivered.
Lieutenant Colonel Avital Leibovitz, the chief Israeli military spokeswoman said Israeli commandos “didn't storm the ship — they boarded it with the agreement" of the people on board.
The passengers and crew, including Nobel Peace prize winner Mairead Maguire, were expected to be questioned and their identifies checked by Israeli officials before being deported, as happened with hundreds of people taken off the previous aid flotilla.
The Israeli vessels had earlier intercepted the ship around 35 miles (55 km) off the Gaza coast. Ms Maguire said the group would offer no resistance if Israeli forces boarded their ship. “We will sit down,” she said. “They will probably arrest us ... But there will be no resistance.”
The group had said in a statement they would let an international force, preferably United Nations inspectors, search the ship and certify the nature of its cargo before it proceeds to Gaza, to allay Israeli fears that weapons could be on board.
The 1,200 tonne ship, named after an American student crushed to death by a bulldozer in 2003 while protesting Israeli house demolitions in Gaza, had been expected in Gaza late this morning.
Israel’s treatment of the activists will be closely watched around the world after the disastrous Israeli navy raid on a Gaza bound convoy on Monday which led to the deaths of nine people, mainly Turkish activists.
The commando who killed six of those on board the Mavi Marmara is expected to be given a medal of valour, a move certain to inflame the row with Turkey over the attack on the flotilla.
Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, told his Cabinet on Thursday the Irish boat would not be allowed to reach Gaza but instructed the military to avoid harming the passengers on board the ship.
Avigdor Lieberman, the Israeli Foreign Minister, said their policy had not changed. “We have made it clear to the Irish and others, no ship will reach Gaza without a security inspection,” he said.
But Ms Maguire and her fellow passengers wanted to highlight the plight of 1.5 million Palestinians living under a prolonged closure in the Gaza Strip, whose economy and infrastructure have been destroyed by war and blockade.
Human rights activists have called Israel’s policy, designed to pressure the population against their Hamas rulers, collective punishment.
“We head to Gaza in order to deliver the humanitarian aid and to break the siege of Gaza,” Ms Maguire said.
Greta Berlin, a co-founder of the Free Gaza movement which is sponsoring the Rachel Corrie, said the activists were not impressed by Mr Netanyahu’s statements to Tony Blair, the UN Middle East envoy, that Israel would increase the amount and variety of goods which could enter Gaza by land.
“We do not trust Israel any more,” said Ms Berlin.
The former UN humanitarian coordinator in Iraq, Denis Halliday, said that trade unions and government officials had already inspected the ship’s cargo.
“We are 100 percent confident that there is nothing that is offensive or dangerous,” he told Israel’s Channel 2 TV. However, Israeli considers even cement a possible weapon against it, arguing it could be used by Hamas to build bunkers. It has also in the past proscribed certain herbs and even macaroni.
Michael Martin, Ireland’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, who had agreed with Israel that the ship should be diverted to Israel, said the two countries had agreed that the ship’s entire cargo, including 550 tonnes of cement, would have been transported to Gaza, accompanied by two activists from the Rachel Corrie.
“In my view, such an arrangement would have offered a useful precedent for future humanitarian shipments, pending the complete lifting of the blockade,” he said.
He also called on Israel to refrain from using force on the activists.
“If, as is their stated intention, the Israeli government intercepts the Rachel Corrie, the [Irish] government demands that it demonstrate every restraint,” he said in a statement.” There can be no justification for the use of force against any person on board the Rachel Corrie.”
International condemnation of Monday’s raid continued on Friday, with protests in Syria, Greece, Mauritania, Bahrain and Malaysia, where some demonstrators burned Israeli flags and carried mock coffins. In Norway, the military cancelled a seminar scheduled for later this month because an Israeli army officer was to have lectured.
Israel claims that activists ambushed the Israeli commandos as they rappelled on board the Mavi Marmara from helicopters, and the military and Turkish TV have released videotape showing soldiers under attack.
Returning activists admitted fighting with the Israeli commandos but insisted they acted in self defence because the ships were being boarded in international waters by a military force.
On Friday, the Israeli military released what it said was an edited radio exchange with the flotilla, captured from its own communications equipment, in which unidentified male voices were heard making anti-Semitic and anti-American comments.
It was impossible to independently authenticate the tape, which the military said pieced together segments of exchanges.
Meanwhile, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said the Islamic militants have refused to accept any aid from the Israeli-intercepted flotilla. “We are not seeking to fill our [bellies], we are looking to break the Israeli siege on Gaza,” he said.