Israel vowed Friday to keep an Irish aid ship from breaching its blockade of the impoverished Gaza Strip, appealing to pro-Palestinian activists to dock at an Israeli port and avoid another showdown at sea.
The new effort to break the blockade will test Israel's resolve as it faces a wave of international outrage over its deadly naval raid of a flotilla of aid ships earlier this week.
Activists on board the Irish boat, including a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, insisted they would not resist if Israeli soldiers tried to take over their vessel. They said they expected the ship, named the Rachel Corrie after a U.S. activist killed in the Gaza Strip while protesting the bulldozing of a Palestinian home, to reach Gaza by late Saturday morning
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his cabinet on Thursday the Irish boat would not be allowed to reach Gaza. On Friday, Israel's foreign minister said the policy had not changed.
"We have made it clear to the Irish and others: no ship will reach Gaza without a security inspection," Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman told Channel 1 TV.
Diplomats, Nobel Peace Prize winner aboard aid ship
Greta Berlin, a spokesman for the Free Gaza group, says the 1,181-tonne Rachel Corrie is heading directly to Gaza and will not stop in any port on the way. It is trying to deliver hundreds of tonnes of aid, including wheelchairs, medical supplies and concrete.
Netanyahu said Israel has made several offers to direct the ship to an Israeli port, where the aid supplies would be unloaded, inspected and transferred to Gaza by land, but the offers were rejected, according to a participant in the cabinet meeting.
Netanyahu has rejected calls to lift the blockade on Gaza, insisting that it prevents missile attacks on Israel. The Rachel Corrie's cargo of concrete is also a problem because Israel considers that to have military uses.
Netanyahu also instructed the military to act with sensitivity in preventing the Rachel Corrie from landing and avoid harming those on board the ship, the participant said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the meeting was closed.
Irish Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mairead McGuire and the former head of the UN Oil-for-Food program in Iraq, Denis Halliday, are among the 11 passengers on board, Berlin said.
Israel has rejected demands for an international panel to probe Monday's deadly commando raid on the aid ships, saying it can conduct a professional, impartial investigation on its own.
Activists say Israel sabotaged the previous aid flotilla; Netanyahu has said the Israeli commandos were attacked onboard by the activists and acted in self-defence.
In Istanbul, Turkey's deputy prime minister said Friday that all deals with Israel are being evaluated, and economic and defence co-operation with Israel will be reduced after the killing of the activists, who were all Turkish.
"We are serious on this issue. New co-operation will not start and relations with Israel will be reduced," Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said.
Energy Minister Taner Yildiz has said discussions about extending a Russian natural gas pipeline to Israel and providing fresh drinking water to Israel from the Manavgat River were being shelved.
The pro-Palestinian activists' deaths on the aid ship increased tensions in the Mideast, especially with Turkey, an important ally of Israel. On Thursday, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called Israel's actions "a historic mistake."
Israel maintains its commandos opened fire Monday as a last resort after they were attacked, and released a video showing soldiers in riot gear descending from a helicopter into a crowd of men with clubs. Three or four activists overpowered each soldier as he landed.
Returning activists admitted fighting with the Israelis but insisted their actions were in self-defence because the ships were being boarded in international waters by a military force.
Thousands jammed Istanbul on Thursday to pay tribute to those killed on the ship at a funeral service outside the Fatih mosque, and larger services were expected on Friday.