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Israel boards Gaza aid ship as blockade criticized
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel's navy boarded a ship carrying aid to Gaza without incident on Saturday, five days after killing nine people on a Turkish aid ship to enforce what Washington calls an unsustainable blockade.
The navy, whose actions on Monday triggered an international outcry, took control of the Rachel Corrie and sailed it to Ashdod, where it docked, the Israeli military said.
The Irish-owned cargo vessel had ignored the navy's orders to divert and allow its cargo to be unloaded and inspected before delivery to Gaza.
Interior Ministry spokeswoman Sabine Haddad said all 19 passengers and crew had signed deportation papers and most would leave the country on various flights on Sunday.
"The process went very smoothly and they will be flying out through Ben-Gurion Airport during tomorrow," Haddad said.
She added that six Malaysian citizens and one Cuban would leave the country via the Allenby Bridge land crossing to Jordan.
The army said the ship had been boarded in the Mediterranean "with the full compliance of the crew and without incident."
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement: "Forces used the same procedures for Monday's flotilla and Saturday's boat but were met by a different response.
"On today's ship and in five of the six vessels in the previous flotilla, (their boarding) procedure ended without casualties. The only difference was with one ship where extremist Islamic activists, supporters of terrorism, waited for our troops on the deck with axes and knives."
The Rachel Corrie, carrying Irish, Malaysian and other activists, is named after a pro-Palestinian activist killed in Gaza in 2003.
Its mission was the latest bid to break a blockade imposed on Gaza four years ago with the stated aim of stopping its Hamas rulers from bolstering their arsenal to fight the Jewish state.
"Israel will continue to exercise its right to self defense. We will not allow the establishment of an Iranian port in Gaza," Netanyahu said.
Kevin Squires of the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign in Dublin, one of whose members was on the Rachel Corrie, called the boarding "another brazen act of Israeli piracy."
A senior Turkish pathologist said autopsy results had found 30 bullets in the bodies of the activists killed in the raid on the Mavi Marmara this week. All the dead were Turks, including one with dual U.S. citizenship. Ankara's already strained ties with Israel, once an ally, are at an all-time low.
Friends and foes alike have heaped criticism on Israel.
While the United States, its main ally, has expressed more sympathy than most for its security concerns, it has also spoken of the need for Gazans to receive adequate supplies, and signaled that the embargo cannot continue in its present form.
"We are working urgently with Israel, the Palestinian Authority and other international partners to develop new procedures for delivering more goods and assistance to Gaza," a spokesman for the White House National Security Council said.
"The current arrangements are unsustainable and must be changed."
The U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, said the embargo, which had blighted the lives of Gaza's 1.5 million people, was illegal.
"International humanitarian law prohibits starvation of civilians as a method of warfare and ... it is also prohibited to impose collective punishment on civilians," she said.
Israel denies there is a humanitarian crisis in Gaza and says it lets in hundreds of truckloads of supplies each day.
But it does stop cement and other materials that it says could be used by Hamas for military purposes, and a range of other goods with no obvious military application.
Hamas, an Islamist group backed by Syria and Iran, is hostile to Israel and does not recognize interim peace agreements signed by the Western-backed Palestinian Authority led by President Mahmoud Abbas, who holds sway in the West Bank.
Analysts expect Israel, buffeted by diplomatic storms in the past year, at least to modify the blockade. Israeli officials say Netanyahu is considering some form of international role in enforcing an arms embargo, while letting in "civilian goods."
There have also been calls for an international inquiry. Israeli officials have proposed a foreign role in an Israeli inquiry.
The head of Turkey's state forensics laboratory said autopsy results on the nine Turkish activists killed in Monday's raid showed they had been shot a total of 30 times, many at close range. Five were killed by gunshots to the head, he said.
Twenty-four people were still in a hospital in Ankara, including seven in critical condition, according to physicians.
(Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza, Alastair Macdonald in Jerusalem, Tom Perry in Ramallah, Andras Gergely in Dublin, Ibon Villelabeitia in Ankara, Ayla Jean Yackley in Istanbul, Alister Bull in Washington and Aaron Gray-Block in Kampala; Editing by Charles Dick)
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