IDF naval commandos took control Saturday of the Rachel Corrie, a ship trying to breach the maritime blockade on the Gaza Strip. The Israel Defense Forces said Saturday that the activists on board, who included Irish and Malaysian citizens, did not enter into any confrontations with the troops.
"Today we saw the difference between a flotilla of peace activists - with whom we disagree, but whose right to a different opinion we respect - and a flotilla of hate organized by violent, terrorism-supporting extremists," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Saturday following the takeover.
The operation was personally overseen by Israel Navy Commander Eliezer Marom and the commander of the Shayetet 13, Col. A, who traveled in a boat alongside the Rachel Corrie. The IDF jammed all signals coming from the ship and its passengers.
The Israel Navy first contacted the Rachel Corrie on Friday, trying to convince its passengers not to sail on to the Gaza Strip. Speaking to the activists through the Irish government, Israel attempted to persuade them to dock in Ashdod, where their cargo would be inspected and then they would accompany it to the ground border crossings to the Gaza Strip.
Israel Navy boats began shadowing the ship at 6 A.M. yesterday, calling out to the activists to change course and informing them that the area was under a naval blockade. The ship maintained its course toward Gaza nonetheless.
The navy continued sending official transmissions to the Rachel Corrie, saying it was approaching a closed area of conflict. At about noon, as the ship approached the border of the blockaded area, the IDF informed the passengers that it was preparing to board their vessel. All passengers were requested to come out on deck.
Some 15 minutes later, after passengers congregated on the upper deck, Shayetet 13 commandos boarded the ship in several places, encountering no resistance. The activists facilitated the commandos' boarding by lowering a ledge from their ship. The commandos boarded from smaller boats; they did not use any helicopters.
The ship was also boarded by female combatants from the navy's "Fin" unit, in the event that any of the female passengers required treatment. Some of the Shayetet 13 soldiers who boarded the Rachel Corrie yesterday had also taken part in the boarding of the Mavi Marmara and other flotilla ships last Monday.
The Rachel Corrie was carrying 19 people. Eight of them were identified as Malaysian crewmen and the others as activists from the United Kingdom and Ireland. At 6 P.M. yesterday the boat entered the Ashdod port, where its passengers were transferred to the care of the Interior Ministry's Oz unit, ahead of their deportation. Israel meanwhile began examining the ship's cargo, which included 500 tons of concrete, medical equipment, wheelchairs and study materials.
The office of the coordinator of government activities in the territories said yesterday that all equipment on board the ship will be examined and inspected, and everything defined as humanitarian will be taken by international organizations into Gaza. The civil administration stressed yesterday that concrete - which was banned from the Gaza Strip for fear of being used by Hamas for fortifications and tunnels - has been entering the Strip in recent months, in coordination with international organizations committed to ensuring that it is only used for civilian projects.
The IDF is not aware of any more ships sailing for Gaza in the coming days. The last ship of the flotilla, the Challenger 2, is still stuck in a Cypriot port due to mechanical malfunctions.
The quiet takeover of the Rachel Corrie was preceded by diplomatic contacts with both the ship's passengers and organizers. On Friday, Israel and Ireland put together a deal that would allow an orderly transfer of the humanitarian equipment on board to the Gaza Strip, but the passengers rejected it. In light of this rejection, the forum of seven senior ministers decided to stop the ship and take it over.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was updated throughout the weekend on the operation, after the seven ministers met on Friday at noon for a special session concerning the ship. After the takeover was completed, Netanyahu said that both on Monday and yesterday Israel used exactly the same process to enforce the maritime blockade, to prevent the smuggling of weapons to Hamas and to allow civilian goods to enter Gaza following an inspection.
"In today's ship and in five out of six ships in the flotilla, the process concluded without casualties," the prime minister said. "The sole exception was one terrorist-supporting ship, on which radical Islamist activists awaited our soldiers with axes and knives. Israel will continue to maintain its right to self defense. We will not allow an Iranian port to be set up in the Gaza Strip."
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