- The Washington Times - Friday, June 4, 2010

The Obama administration on Friday urged pro-Palestinian activists attempting to break an Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip to avoid another confrontation in the region, but those on board the Irish ship said they had no intention of abandoning their plans.

The MV Rachel Corrie, laden with purported humanitarian supplies, is set to arrive off the coast of Gaza on Saturday morning, setting up another showdown with Israel, which has warned the activists against trying to break its blockade of the territory.

Greta Berlin, a spokeswoman for the Free Gaza Movement, which has organized the expedition, said the ship was about 120 miles off the coast of Gaza on Friday evening and was sailing through international waters at a speed of 9 mph.

“We expect the ship to reach Gaza by Saturday morning,” Ms. Berlin said in a phone interview with The Washington Times.

Israel has warned the activists that it will stop the Rachel Corrie if it tries to break the blockade and has asked the activists to unload their shipment in the Israeli port city of Ashdod, promising to deliver humanitarian supplies to Gaza over land.

National Security Council spokesman Mike Hammer in a statement on Friday evening urged the Rachel Corrie to sail to Ashdod and avoid a confrontation with Israel.
“In the interest of the safety of all involved, and the safe transmission of assistance to the people of Gaza, we strongly encourage those on board the Rachel Corrie and other vessels to sail to Ashdod to deliver their materials to Gaza,” Mr. Hammer said. He said the U.S. was calling on all parties to join it in encouraging “responsible decisions by all sides to avoid any unnecessary confrontations and to ensure the safety of all involved.”

Mr. Hammer said the Israel government has “stated its desire to avoid a confrontation and a repeat of Monday’s tragic events on the Mavi Marmara,” He was referring to the Turkish ship on which Israeli troops were involved in a bloody confrontation earlier this week. Nine activists, including a U.S.-Turkish dual national, were killed in that incident.

Ms. Berlin said the Rachel Corrie had no intention of giving in to Israeli demands that it dock at Ashdod.

“We will never stop at Ashdod. There is absolutely no way,” Ms. Berlin said. “That will only happen if the Israelis force us to stop.”

She said there were no U.S. citizens aboard the Rachel Corrie, named for a U.S. peace activist who was killed by an Israeli bulldozer in Gaza in 2003 while trying to prevent a Palestinian home from being demolished.

Twelve U.S. citizens were on board the earlier flotilla of six activist ships that attempted to break the blockade earlier in the week.

Another U.S. citizen on one of the ships was injured. A third was injured during a subsequent protest.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said this week the Obama administration was in constant contact with the Israeli government and was attempting to obtain more information about U.S. citizens.

She said the U.S. had taken “no decisions at this point on any additional specific actions that our government should take with respect to our own citizens.”

Mrs. Clinton said the U.S. was “evaluating ways of expanding the flow of humanitarian assistance to the people of Gaza while protecting Israels legitimate security interests.”

Mr. Hammer said the Obama administration was working urgently with Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and other international partners to develop “new procedures for delivering more goods and assistance to Gaza, while also increasing opportunity for the people of Gaza and preventing the importation of weapons.”

“The current arrangements are unsustainable and must be changed,” he said.

Ms. Berlin said the Rachel Corrie was carrying cement to build homes, paper and stationery for Palestinian children, and sports equipment. “These are all things the kids of Gaza can’t get,” she said.

Israel says shipments provided to the territory ruled by Hamas will only further strengthen the Islamic militant group.

The U.N. Security Council has called for an investigation into the Israeli raid on the flotilla, saying it “deeply regrets the loss of life and injuries resulting from the use of force during the Israeli military operation.”

According to some reports from the region, the pro-Palestinian activists had sought a U.N. escort for the Rachel Corrie.

Ms. Berlin said such an escort was “not a bad idea.”

A former U.N. assistant secretary-general, Denis Halliday, is on board the ship, but it was not known whether he had made a request.

Efforts to contact Mr. Halliday were unsuccessful.

Irish Nobel Peace Prize winner Mairead Maguire, who is also on board the ship, told Ireland’s RTE state radio, “We started out to deliver this cargo to the people of Gaza and to break the siege of Gaza, that is what we want to do.”

Mr. Hammer said it remains a U.S. priority to provide assistance to the people of Gaza.

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