Israel denies damaging Irish ship bound for Gaza flotilla


ISRAELI foreign ministry officials have dismissed as “baseless” claims by organisers of the Gaza-bound flotilla that Israel was responsible for damage to the Irish ship MV Saoirse, docked in Turkey.

Roni Bar-On, a member of Israel’s Knesset parliament from the opposition Kadima party, welcomed the latest setback to the effort to breach Israel’s maritime blockade on Gaza, terming it “the hand of God”. Earlier this week, activists also blamed Israel for sabotage to the Greek-Swedish ship Juliano, which was docked in Greece.

Some 300 international activists, including Irish citizens, are due to set sail in the coming days from Mediterranean ports in up to nine vessels from the United States, Canada, France, Italy, Sweden and Greece.

The organisers are keeping departure details secret as part of the war of attrition with Israel. The flotilla was due to set sail in the middle of June but was delayed by a number of snags blamed by activists on Israel. The organisers had difficulties insuring the vessels and there have been numerous bureaucratic obstacles placed by the Greek port authorities.

The flotilla’s flagship, the Turkish Mavi Marmara, pulled out at the last minute after what appeared to be pressure from the government in Ankara, keen to avoid a repeat of the events of last summer when nine activists were killed when Israeli naval commandos stormed the vessel.

The clash prompted Turkey to withdraw its ambassador from Israel, and Ankara insisted on a formal apology from Jerusalem and compensation for the victims’ families before the ambassador was returned. Intensive contacts continue between the two sides in an effort to find an acceptable compromise to get relations back on track, and Ankara felt that another maritime confrontation could derail these diplomatic efforts.

Israel’s Ma’arivnewspaper quoted a number of ministers criticising claims that flotilla activists planned to attack soldiers as “media spin” and “public relations hysteria”. The unnamed ministers said they heard no such reports during top-level ministerial consultations about the flotilla, and they blamed the prime minister’s office for disseminating false information to pressure foreign governments to persuade citizens not to participate in the sailing.

Despite the withdrawal of support from the Turkish Islamic IHH organisation, senior Israeli officials said intelligence information indicated that hardcore activists bent on violence would be on a number of the vessels, among the majority veteran peace campaigners who are committed to non-violence. There were also reports that some activists intended to bring dangerous chemicals aboard.

Mark Regev, spokesman for prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, said Israel was prepared for all possible scenarios. “We are concerned that there could be a repeat of the violence we saw last year. Israel cannot allow unfettered naval access to the Gaza Strip because if we did you would see Iranian missiles reaching Hamas in Gaza and that would be a direct threat to civilians throughout Israel,” he said.