Israel may ease Gaza blockade


In a dramatic reversal of policy, senior Israeli ministers were last night expected to approve a proposal by prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to ease the naval blockade on Gaza.

The move comes as activists on board the Irish-owned aid ship  MV Rachel Corrie  dismissed reports that the vessel was returning to dock and vowed to continue towards Gaza in defiance of the blockade. They expect to arrive at the Israeli exclusion zone over the weekend.

Under Mr Netanyahu’s proposal, international inspectors would examine boats destined for Gaza to ensure no weapons were on board.

The examination could take place either at Israel’s southern port of Ashdod or at an Egyptian port.

The Israeli proposal follows fierce international criticism after nine passengers were killed on Monday when Israeli commandos stormed a Gaza-bound flotilla.

Israel hopes the initiative, drawn up after contacts with senior US officials and Quartet envoy Tony Blair, will deflect some of the international backlash.

Speaking to  The Irish Times  from the  Rachel Corrie  yesterday, former UN official Denis Halliday denied reports that the ship had turned back or that it might opt to accept an escort into the Israeli port of Ashdod.

He said the 15 passengers and crew on board the Cambodian-registered ship were “more determined than ever” to bring their cargo to Gaza.

Due to technical problems which delayed its departure, the 1200-tonne  Rachel Corrie  was not with the six-ship flotilla which was attacked on Monday.

“If we are not boarded beforehand, we hope to be in Gaza by Saturday,” Mr Halliday said.

“We cannot accept an offer of an escort to another port which could jeopardise safe delivery of our cargo of construction and educational materials and medical supplies.

“We fear that any such escort could mean that our 550 tonnes of cement on board and our educational material would be confiscated by the Israelis, given that they do not define this as humanitarian goods – in breach of the UN definition of same,” he said.

Mr Halliday reiterated that those on board had only peaceful, humanitarian intentions. “We are very committed to getting to Gaza, and we know that it means an awful lot to the people there,” he said.

“It may seem a little naive, but we are a peaceful group of Irish and Malaysian people who will not put up any resistance if we are boarded. We would hope, though, that the Israelis would show that perhaps they do actually care, and would allow open ports for ships like this carrying humanitarian relief for the people of Gaza.” Mr Halliday said the ship’s captain planned to make a daylight approach to Gaza tomorrow.

The Department of Foreign Affairs last night stated that it was not its role to negotiate on behalf of those travelling on the  Rachel Corrie,  and it stressed that any ongoing contacts it may have with the Israeli authorities are to ensure that the “clearly stated humanitarian intentions” of those on board are respected.

“The persons on the  Rachel Corrie  represent independent NGOs. The department respects this and it is not our role to negotiate on their behalf,” it said. “The Government continues to call for safe passage for the  Rachel Corrie  to Gaza.The Government’s top priority is the safety and welfare of the Irish citizens concerned and all those aboard the vessel; to avoid any further bloodshed or violence; and to see the safe delivery of humanitarian aid to the people of Gaza.”

Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin held a meeting with Israel’s ambassador to Ireland Zion Evrony yesterday. They discussed the treatment of some Irish citizens caught up in Monday’s raid.

Fiachra Ó Luain and Libyan-born Al Mahdi Alharati were treated in hospital after they were flown to Turkey from Israel.

Both Mr Ó Luain and another activist, Dr Fintan Lane, arrived back in Ireland today. Other Irish passport holders transferred to Turkey, including Australia-based journalist Paul McGeough, are making their own travel arrangements.