ISTANBUL – ISTANBUL (AP) — An aid ship trying to break the blockade of Gaza could reach Israel's 20-mile (32-kilometer) exclusion zone late Friday, an activist said, but Israel's prime minister has vowed the ship will not reach land.
The dueling comments suggest a potential new clash over Israel's three-year-old blockade of the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip — and come only four days after an Israeli commando raid on a larger aid flotilla left nine activists dead.
Greta Berlin, a spokesman for the Free Gaza group, said in Nicosia the 1,200-ton Rachel Corrie is heading directly to Gaza and will not stop in any port on the way. It is trying to deliver hundreds of tons of aid, including wheelchairs, medical supplies and concrete.
By Friday afternoon, the ship was 150 miles (240 kilometers) from the coast of Gaza in international waters, the group said on its website. Irish Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mairead McGuire and the former head of the U.N. Oil-for-Food program in Iraq, Denis Halliday, were among the 11 passengers on board.
The Irish vessel is named after an American college student crushed to death by an Israeli army bulldozer while protesting house demolitions in Gaza.
Israel will not allow the aid ship to reach Gaza, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told senior Cabinet ministers late Thursday. According to a participant in the meeting, he said Israel 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.
Netanyahu has hotly 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 has instructed the military to act with sensitivity in preventing the Rachel Corrie from landing and avoid harming those on board, the participant said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the meeting was closed.
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, and Israeli defense officials said Friday only that unspecified "actions" were taken when the boats were still far from Gaza that delayed the flotilla. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the information was classified.
The Turkish 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."
His deputy on Friday announced that Turkey was reducing its economic and defense cooperation with Israel. Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said all deals with Israel are being evaluated.
"We are serious on this issue. New cooperation will not start and relations with Israel will be reduced," he said.
Israel says 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 Israeli commandos but insisted their actions were in self defense because the ships were being boarded in international waters by a military force.
In Istanbul on Friday, 20,000 people waved Turkish, Palestinian and Hezbollah flags in a memorial service outside the Beyazit mosque for a member of the IHH charity group who the activists say was killed while taking pictures of the Israeli commando raid.
The youngest of the nine activists killed, 19-year-old Furkan Dogan, was being buried Friday in his family's hometown in Kayseri in central Turkey. Another 10,000 people attended the funeral service for Dogan ahead of his burial, chanting "down with Israel," but Dogan's father, Ahmet Dogan, was stoic.
"Neither I nor his mother or brother have any grief," he told the AP as he arranged flowers on his son's coffin before prayers started. "We believe he became a martyr and God accepts martyrs to paradise."
Dogan, who was born in Troy, New York, moved to Turkey when he was two. The other eight slain activists were all Turkish nationals.
In Istanbul, three members of an anti-Zionist Jewish sect called a news conference to blast Israel's actions.
"We are totally opposed and condemn this atrocity that has been perpetrated against Turkey, against the ships of the human rights activists," Rabbi Yisroel Dovid Weiss, a leader of the radical Neturei Karta, told reporters.
"We all pray for the speedy and peaceful total dismantlement of the state of Israel and for a free Gaza ... so we can live together — Jews, Muslims and Christians."
Hadjicostis reported from Nicosia. Associated Press writers Mark Lavie and Matti Friedman in Jerusalem, Selcan Hacaoglu in Istanbul and Burhan Ozbilici in Kayseri also contributed to this report.