An aid ship trying to break the blockade of Gaza could reach Israel's 20-mile (32-kilometer) exclusion zone by Friday afternoon, 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, says 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.
Irish Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mairead McGuire and the former head of the U.N. Oil-for-Food program in Iraq, Denis Halliday, are among the 11 passengers on board, she said.
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 also instructed the military to act with sensitivity in preventing the Rachel Corrie from landing and avoid harming those on board the ship, 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.
Without explicitly confirming sabotage, the officials say the Israeli actions only delayed the flotilla. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the information was classified.
In Istanbul, Turkey's deputy prime minister said Friday that economic and defense cooperation with Israel will be reduced amid tensions after the killing of nine Turkish activists by Israeli commandos on an aid ship.
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.
Energy Minister Taner Yildiz has said discussions about extending a Russian natural gas pipeline to Israel and providing fresh drinking water to Israel from the Manavgat river were being shelved.
The pro-Palestinian 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."
Israel maintains 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 Israelis but insisted their actions were in self defense because the ships were being boarded in international waters by a military force.
Thousands jammed Istanbul on Thursday to pay tribute to those killed on the ship at a funeral service outside the Fatih mosque, and larger services were expected on Friday.
The youngest of the nine activists killed, Furkan Dogan, was to be buried Friday in his family's hometown in Kayseri in central Turkey.
Dogan, who was born in Troy, New York, moved to Turkey when he was two. The other eight activists were all Turkish nationals.
Hadjicostis reported from Nicosia. Associated Press writers Mark Lavie and Matti Friedman in Jerusalem and Selcan Hacaoglu in Istanbul also contributed to this report.
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