Israeli navy poised to intercept Gaza boats

 

THE ISRAELI navy was poised last night to intercept two boats making their way to the Gaza strip in defiance of Israel’s maritime blockade.

The navy began monitoring the Irish MV Saoirse and the Canadian vessel Al-Tahrir (freedom) as they left the Turkish port of Fethiye on Wednesday after Turkish authorities gave them permission to sail to the Greek island of Rhodes.

Israeli navy ships carrying members of the elite Shayetet 13, Israel’s navy seals, left port yesterday to intercept the two boats and escort them to the southern port of Ashdod.

David Heap, a member of the steering committee on board the Tahrir, said the activists chose to leave from Fethiye because of the strained relations between Turkey and Israel.

However, it is not clear if the Turkish authorities realised that the boats were intending to sail to Gaza.

Israeli officials said that two journalists, from Al-Jazeera and Iranian TV, were travelling with the 27 activists from five countries.

In contrast to last year’s flotilla, when nine Turkish nationals were killed in clashes with Israeli commandos, it is believed that there were no Islamic activists on board the two vessels and Israel was not anticipating violent resistance.

The 14 Irish citizens on board the MV Saoirse include Fintan Lane, former Leinster and Ireland rugby player Trevor Hogan, Socialist Party MEP Paul Murphy, former Fianna Fáil TD Chris Andrews, Siptu official Mags O’Brien, artist Felim Egan, People Before Profit councillor in Dún Laoghaire Hugh Lewis, Sinn Féin councillors Pat Fitzgerald and John Hearne, both from Waterford City Council, and Zoe Lawlor, who teaches at the University of Limerick and is a member of the national committee of the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign.

Activists stressed that there were no weapons on board and the aim of the mission was to deliver $30,000 worth of mostly medical aid to the residents of Gaza, highlighting Israel’s illegal blockade.

Organisers rejected Israel’s offer to transfer the humanitarian aid overland to Gaza, via Ashdod port.

They said the new attempt to break the Gaza siege was part of a campaign called “freedom waves”, implying that more flotillas would be organised when the weather improved.

The ships were due to enter Gaza exclusion zone waters by 8am this morning and organisers feared that the Israeli authorities might intervene once they entered this zone.

Last night a spokeswoman for the MV Saoirse crew said they had been shadowed by two warships and spotter planes had been in the skies above them.

The ship intended, for the moment, to keep out of the exclusion zone waters, she said.

A Department of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman said it had been in contact with both the Israeli authorities and the boat organisers.

Israeli officials described the expedition as a “provocation”, and said the maritime blockade was a legal measure, endorsed by the UN Palmer report, introduced to stop weapons reaching Gaza militants.