MARK WEISS in Jerusalem
IRELAND’S AMBASSADOR to Israel has urged the Israeli authorities to take every precaution to ensure the safety of Irish citizens travelling aboard aid boats heading for Gaza.
The plea from ambassador Briefne O’Reilly came during a meeting at the foreign ministry in Jerusalem on Monday where he was informed by the ministry’s director of European affairs, Naor Gilon, that Irish peace activists, together with other European participants in the “freedom flotilla”, will be turned back by Israeli naval patrols before they reach the shores of Gaza.
“We are closely monitoring the situation and urge restraint on all sides,” Mr O’Reilly said. “We need to avoid escalation or confrontation to ensure a peaceful outcome which will enable the safe delivery of these humanitarian supplies.”
The Israeli foreign ministry also called in the ambassadors of Turkey, Greece and Sweden. Mr Gilon condemned the latest attempt to bypass Israel’s blockade on Gaza as “a provocation and a breach of Israeli law”. Activists aboard the 1,200-ton cargo ship Rachel Corrie, named after an American who was crushed to death by an Israeli army bulldozer in Gaza in 2003, have vowed to defy the Israeli blockade.
The vessel set sail from Dundalk at the weekend, and will be joined by three ships from Turkey and five from Greece, co-ordinated by the Free Gaza Movement, when it arrives in Cyprus.
The nine boats are due to arrive in Gaza next week with 5,000 tons of reconstruction material, medical equipment and school supplies.
Israel imposed a strict economic blockade on Gaza after Hamas seized control of the territory in 2007, although humanitarian convoys are allowed to pass into the coastal strip, via Israeli crossing points, on an almost daily basis.
Israeli officials stressed that countries or aid organisations wishing to send humanitarian relief to Gaza could do so via the regular land convoys.
UN Relief and Works Agency Gaza director John Ging called earlier this month on the international community to break the siege on the Gaza Strip by sending ships loaded with aid.
“We believe that Israel will not intercept these vessels because the sea is open and human rights organisations have been successful in similar previous operations, proving that breaking the siege of Gaza is possible,” Mr Ging said.
Last summer the Israeli navy intercepted a ship carrying activists, including Irish Nobel laureate Mairéad Maguire, from Cyprus to Gaza, and towed it into the southern Israeli port of Ashdod.
Israel released the crew and passengers after police questioning.
The Free Gaza Movement, which has organised eight previous maritime missions to Gaza, said it would ignore the Israeli threats to turn the boats back. It stressed that Palestinians in Gaza “have a right to the thousands of basic supplies that Israel bans from entering, including cement and schoolbooks, as well as a right to access the outside world.”