Activist ship heads to Gaza

2010-06-04 14:58

Jerusalem - The Rachel Corrie activist ship kept its course for a Saturday arrival in Gaza - or confrontation - as world anger simmered over Israel's deadly raid on an earlier blockade-busting bid.

"We are around 150 miles from Gaza, continuing at a steady pace, and hope to arrive on Saturday morning," Jenny Graham, one of the Irish activists aboard the vessel said, according to the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign.

"The Israelis have not been in contact with us. We remain as committed as ever to getting our 1 000 tons of aid and supplies to the people of Gaza."

The handful of Irish and Malaysian activists on board, among them Irish Nobel Peace laureate Mairead Maguire, 66, were just hours away from the Palestinian enclave but were unlikely to run the Israeli gauntlet until daylight on Saturday.

Israel in a tight spot

Organisers had initially hoped to postpone the last leg of the voyage so the cargo ship could pick up high-profile personalities, including Holocaust survivor Hedy Epstein, and journalists.

But co-ordinators said they had been unable to relay the message to those on board in time.

"It's too far along now," said Mary Hughes Thompson, a spokesperson for the Free Gaza movement, which has been co-ordinating efforts to the crippling blockade Israel says aims at halting rocket fire from Hamas-ruled Gaza.

With Ireland's prime minister warning sternly that the ship must be allowed to reach Gaza, the activists have put Israel in a tight spot at a time when it already faces a serious diplomatic crisis over Monday's botched raid in which its commandos killed nine activists and wounded dozens more aboard a Gaza-bound flotilla.

The prime minister of the Hamas government in Gaza, Ismail Haniya encouraged activists "to continue with these convoys in order to break the siege".

Thousands take to the streets

He spoke at weekly Friday prayers in Gaza City, flanked by Palestinian and Turkish flags.

Later, thousands of people took to the streets in central Gaza.

In Kuala Lumpur, some 5 000 people rallied outside the US embassy, burning Israel flags and brandishing posters proclaiming: "Allah will destroy you Israel."

Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah called for a mass rally in Beirut on Friday evening where he said he would announce "serious measures".

In Jerusalem, police restricted access to the flashpoint Al-Aqsa mosque compound and deployed in force in and around the Old City.

Angry protests have been staged across the Middle East and in other major cities since Monday's deadly raid, with demonstrators demanding an end to the Gaza blockade.

'Ties will never be the same'

A massive rally was held on Thursday in Turkey - a key Israeli ally - whose activists played a major role in the ill-fated six-ship flotilla.

President President Abdullah Gul warned that ties with Israel "will never be the same" after the attack, while Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said economic and defence ties will be slashed.

Turkey sent two medical planes to Israel on Friday to bring back five of its nationals wounded during the assault on the flotilla in which nine Turks were killed, including one who also holds US nationality.

Israel has warned it will stop the blockade-busting bid by Rachel Corrie - a 1 200 ton cargo ship named after a US activist killed in 2003 as she tried to prevent an Israeli bulldozer from razing a Palestinian home.

The US administration has so far refused to explicitly single out the Israeli government for blame.

Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas will ask President Barack Obama to make "bold decisions" on Middle East peace when the two meet in Washington on Wednesday. He will first travel to Turkey to pay his condolences.

Conflicting versions

The Israeli authorities and the activists had conflicting versions of what happened during Monday's pre-dawn raid.

Israel has said the commandos only opened fire after they came under attack with clubs, knives, guns and other weapons.

Bulent Yildirim, head of the Islamic charity Foundation of Humanitarian Relief, which spearheaded the Gaza aid fleet, said activists used iron bars in self-defence after Israeli soldiers fired indiscriminately when they stormed the Turkish ferry Mavi Marmara.

Serbian cameraman Srdjan Stojiljkovic said gunshots were heard and people on the boat, who were unarmed, grabbed one of the soldiers, disarmed him and took him below the deck.

"People were falling down covered in blood, others were screaming as they were hit by bullets," said Stojiljkovic, adding that he had filmed the scenes, but that the Israelis "took everything but documents" from the detained activists and journalists.