- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 30, 2008

BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) — A boat carrying international peace activists and medical supplies to the embattled Gaza Strip sailed into a Lebanese port on Tuesday — after being turned back and damaged by the Israeli navy, organizers of the trip said.

A small crowd on the docks in the southern Lebanese port city of Tyre, including fishermen, cheered welcoming the vessel, called SS Dignity, and some flashed the victory sign.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said the boat had ignored an Israeli radio order to turn back early Tuesday.

Palmor says the boat tried to outmaneuver an Israeli navy ship and crashed into it, lightly damaging both vessels. The navy then escorted the boat out into the territorial waters of Cyprus.

But passengers and crew aboard the SS Dignity disputed the Israeli account, saying their boat was rammed by Israeli navy boats.

“We were prevented from entering Gaza … by Israeli patrol boats that tracked us for about 30 minutes. They shone their spotlight on us and then all of a sudden they rammed us approximately three times, twice in the front and once in the side,” said former U.S. Representative Cynthia McKinney who was aboard the boat.

“Communications from the Israelis indicated that we were involved in terrorist activities … I presume that’s why they rammed our boat,” she added.

The boat’s British captain, Denis Healey, said the Israeli action came “without any warning, or any provocation.”

The boat, which set off from Cyprus Monday seeking to make a statement and deliver medical supplies to Gaza, bore clear damage marks near its front. The trip’s organizers claimed the boat was clearly in international waters — 90 miles off the coast of Gaza — at the time of its close encounter with the Israeli navy.

“We have sadness in our hearts that we could not reach our people in Gaza but we will continue the journey until we meet them,” said Sami al-Hajj, among the activists on board. Al-Hajj, a cameraman for the pan-Arab Al-Jazeera Television, spent six years in U.S. custody at Guantanamo Bay before being freed earlier this year.

Protest organizer Derek Graham, from the group Free Gaza, said the Israelis’ “ramming” of the boat damaged its engine and forced it to “limp” to Lebanon.

Lebanese President Michel Suleiman ordered Tuesday the boat be “rescued” and welcomed back in Lebanon.

Cyprus Foreign Minister Markos Kyprianou told public radio that his country would lodge a formal protest over Israel’s alleged ramming of the Free Gaza boat.

He said that although the boat is neither Cypriot-owned nor Cypriot-registered, the fact that it left Cyprus and has Cypriot nationals aboard accords the Cyprus government “the right to be informed and to protest.”

Kyprianou said he has instructed the Cyprus embassy in Israel to lodge the protest.

The 66-foot (20-meter) yacht Dignity, flying the flag of Gibraltar, left Larnaca Monday with almost 4 tons of Cypriot-donated supplies and 16 passengers, including McKinney, Cypriot lawmaker Eleni Theocharous and activists from Britain, Australia, Ireland and Tunisia, organizers said.

Theocharous, who is also a surgeon, said supplies include urgently needed surgical equipment and antibiotics.

The Free Gaza group has made five deliveries of aid by boat to Gaza since August, defying a blockade imposed by Israel when Hamas won control of the territory in June 2007.

Israel has launched the deadliest bombing campaign against Palestinians in decades on Saturday which it says is in retaliation for rocket fire aimed at civilians in southern Israeli towns. The strikes in Gaza have killed more than 360 people and wounded hundreds of others.

Also Tuesday, the Lebanese government decided to offer $1 million in aid for the Palestinian victims of Israel’s assault on Gaza. Information Minister Tarek Mitri said Wednesday would be a national day of mourning for the Palestinian casualties.

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