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Gaza aid boat damaged by Israelis reaches Lebanon

Tyre, Lebanon (Reuters) - A small boat carrying international activists with aid for Gaza docked in the southern Lebanese port city of Tyre on Tuesday after a clash with an Israeli naval ship forced it to divert to Lebanon.

"Dignity", a boat damaged by an Israeli naval ship, arrives at the port city of Tyre in south Lebanon December 30, 2008. REUTERS/Ali Hashisho

An Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman confirmed there had been “physical contact” between its vessel and the 60-foot cabin cruiser “Dignity,” which sailed from Cyprus late on Monday.

Some activists from the “Free Gaza” movement told Reuters their boat, carrying 3 1/2 metric tons of medical aid and 16 people, was rammed and shot at in international waters 70-80 miles off Gaza by an Israeli naval vessel. There were no casualties.

Yigal Palmor, the Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman, said the aid boat had failed to respond to radio contact. He denied there had been any shooting.

Israel declared the Gaza coastal territory a closed military zone after it launched air attacks on Hamas targets on Saturday. More than 380 Palestinians have been killed in the attacks.

The Dignity docked in Tyre escorted by a Lebanese navy vessel and several fishing boats waving Lebanese and Shi’ite party flags. Scores of Palestinians and Lebanese greeted the boat, which had a huge hole in its superstructure, at the port.

One Free Gaza member, David Halpin, said the wheelhouse glass was smashed, the port side was ripped and the rail was ripped almost all the way from bow to stern.

Halpin said he recognized two Israeli patrol boats when they flashed their searchlights at about 5 a.m. (10 p.m. EST). Israeli officers on board asked the captain to halt the boat’s course to Gaza, but he refused, Halpin said.

“There was the most almighty three bangs with the sound of splintering wood. The bow of the boat was rammed and it went down for a second or two,” Halpin told Reuters.

“I thought I was going to die. I’m 68. None of us had life jackets on. We are appalled at this barbaric act,” he said.

Cyprus state radio said the Cypriot government would seek explanations from Israel over the incident. The vessel was carrying medical aid donated by Cyprus and there were at least three Cypriots on board, including a parliamentarian.

Free Gaza is a U.S.-based organization which has sent regular shuttles of aid to Gaza from Cyprus since August.

Some activists said they were undeterred by the incident.

“We are determined to go to Gaza and we are looking for another boat,” said activist Derek Graham. “The Cypriot government gave us this medicine to deliver, and we will deliver it.”

Reporting by Allyn Fisher-Ilan in Jerusalem, Michele Kambas in Nicosia, Yara Bayoumy in Beirut; Editing by Katie Nguyen