Cowen demands safe passage for Irish ship


Taoiseach Brian Cowen today called on Israel to allow the Irish-owned aid ship MV Rachel Corrie  safe passage to Gaza.

The boat, with five Irish activists aboard, is currently off the coast of Crete en route to Gaza. It is carrying humanitarian supplies, including medical supplies, children's toys, educational and rebuilding materials.

Israel, which has warned it will be stopped if it tries to reach the Gaza Strip, said it would allow the Rachel Corrie to dock in Israel or Egypt, from where its cargo would be inspected and distributed. The ship’s crew have rejected this offer and pledged to plough on towards Gaza.

Mr Cowen, speaking in the Dáil during Leaders' Questions this morning, said the Government was in constant contact with the Israeli government. He called for "absolute restraint" in relation to the Rachel Corrie, which he insisted was on a humanitarian mission.

"The presence of cement on board the vessel is not regarded by the Israelis as product that is simply humanitarian," Mr Cowen said. "We await to see what emerges from that definition they have been putting forward.”

Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin also said the ship should be permitted to continue its mission. “It is imperative that there should be no further confrontation or bloodshed arising from what has been all along a purely humanitarian mission by those involved in the Gaza flotilla,” he said in a statement.

Speaking this morning from the Rachel Corrie, activist Derek Graham of the Free Gaza Movement said it would probably be Friday or Saturday when Israeli forces approached the vessel. He said he would be advising the 15 passengers and crew to sit quietly with their hands showing so the Israelis could not claim they were being attacked. Mr Graham said

"We are a peaceful mission, we have always been a peaceful mission, we have been arrested before by the Israelis . . . they have seen we have not show them any kind of aggression, and we hope they will treat us with the utmost of respect," Mr Graham said on RTÉ Radio.

He said it showed the brutality of the Israelis that they were prepared to stop 1,000 tonnes of aid getting to Palestinians. "They can twist his whatever way they want . . . we're helping all of Palestine not just Hamas. This medical aid goes to everybody."

He said John Ging, head of the UN agency which looks after Palestinian refugees in Gaza, had repeatedly stated the amount of aid going into the territory was "ridiculously small" for the population there.

Mr Graham accused Israel of committing "slow genocide" in relation to blockading Gaza and said they were getting away with it "because they are recognised as being the best spin doctors in the world".

He said more than 400 children had died during the Israeli offensive in Gaza that began in December 2008, and that children had died since the war due to lack of medical facilities.

The Rachel Corrie , which began its voyage in Ireland, was named after a young US woman killed by an Israeli bulldozer demolishing Palestinian homes in Gaza.

Irishman Shane Dillon arrived back in Dublin airport last night via Frankfurt on a Lufthansa flight after being deported from Israel. Mr Dillon was first mate on the Challenger 1 which was among the six-strong flotilla stopped by Israeli commandos. A second Irish citizen, Isam Ben Ali, is expected to return home within the next 24 hours.

Who are the Irish people involved?

The Irish activists who were held in a detention camp in the southern Israeli city of Be’er Sheva include:

* Paul McGeough (56), an Irish-born journalist and chief correspondent of the Sydney Morning Herald . He has reported from the Middle East for two decades.

* Dublin-based Shane Dillon (36), first mate on the Challenger 1. He has served as chief officer on Irish and British merchant ships. He is the brother of musician Eoin Dillon from traditional band Kila. He arrived back in Dublin last night after being deported.

* Dr Fintan Lane (43), a historian, political activist and spokesman for the Ireland-Palestine Solidarity Campaign. He has written and edited several books on modern Irish history.

* Fiachra Ó Luain (28), a peace activist from Co Donegal who contested the 2009 European elections in Ireland North-West. He was one of the first people to protest over the US military using Shannon airport.

* Isam Bin Ali, a naturalised Irish citizen who was born in Libya.

* Al Mahdi al Harati (37), who was also born in Libya and is a naturalised Irish citizen, was under detention at Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv last night. He is due to return to Ireland today.

Meanwhile, on board the MV Rachel Corrie , which is on its way to Gaza, are the following Irish activists:

* Fiona Thompson from Dundalk, a documentary film-maker.

* Denis Halliday, a former assistant secretary general of the UN. After more than 30 years in the UN, he was appointed humanitarian co-ordinator in Iraq in 1997. Halliday is a graduate of Trinity College Dublin and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

* Electrician Derek Graham and his wife, Jenny Graham, from Ballina, Co Mayo. Both are members of the Free Gaza Movement.

* Maireád Maguire, a 1976 Nobel Peace Prize winner and co-founder of the Peace Movement in Northern Ireland. She was detained last year after attempting to get into Gaza with a boatload of aid. This is her third humanitarian trip to the Palestinian territories.