, ASHDOD, Jun 5 – Israeli forces on Saturday boarded the Rachel Corrie after it ignored orders not to head for Gaza, but there was no repetition of the bloody violence when commandos stormed an aid boat earlier this week.
The military said its troops had boarded the ship "with the full compliance" of the crew and passengers in a peaceful operation in which there was no use of violence by either side.
"Our forces boarded the boat and took control without meeting any resistance from the crew or the passengers. Everything took place without violence," a spokeswoman told AFP, saying no shots had been fired.
The ship and the 15 people on board, most of them Irish or Malaysian activists, was being escorted into the southern Israeli port of Ashdod from where the aid would be transferred to Gaza through land crossings, the military said.
Speaking to an AFP reporter in Ashdod, army spokeswoman Avital Leibovitz said the operation had been conducted peacefully.
"They didn\’t storm the ship – they boarded it with the agreement" of the people on board, she said. "They are on the way here and it will probably take a few hours."
The decision to commandeer the Rachel Corrie came after the vessel refused to respond to four requests to head for Ashdod, instead staying its course for Gaza Strip and risking a potentially explosive confrontation with the navy.
Israel promptly warned the 1,200-tonne cargo ship that it would boarded by naval forces if it did not change course.
"Our soldiers will board you if you refuse to change course… We are ready to use force to defend ourselves," Leibovitz told the BBC, quoting the message relayed to the vessel.
Israeli forces intercepted the ship in international waters shortly after dawn but only contacted the Rachel Corrie several hours later when it was 28 nautical miles from the coast but did not specify exactly where.
International waters begin some 20 nautical miles off the shoreline.
Shortly after the navy took over the ship, an Israeli warship was seen heading out of Ashdod port and turning south, indicating the boat was somewhere to the south of the city which lies some 30 kilometres (20 miles) north of the Gaza border.
Activists on board the ship had made clear they would not heed Israeli calls to change course, but had also said they would not put up any resistance to Israeli forces should they board the vessel.
They said they would allow their 1,000 tonnes of cargo to be inspected, preferably by an international force.
In a last communique issued at around 5:38 am (0238 GMT), activist Jenny Graham, who is on board the Rachel Corrie, told organisers the vessel was being approached by two Israeli warships.
Graham said equipment on board had been "jammed by the Israeli navy, and that they expected their satellite phone to be jammed soon as well."
Meanwhile, as news of the standoff on the high seas reached Gaza City, people began streaming towards the port in anticipation of the ship\’s arrival, with officials hailing what they saw as the imminent end of the Israeli blockade which has been in place for nearly four years.
"We are in the last 15 minutes of the siege," said Ahmed Yussef, deputy foreign minister in the Hamas-run government, describing Israel\’s attempts to block the ship\’s passage as "a major violation of naval laws" and a "crime against the international community".
Yussef, who also head of the government\’s committee for breaking the siege, predicted there would be a flood of attempts by international activists to break Israel\’s naval blockade on the territory.
"There will be a lot of ships sent to Gaza by international solidarity organisations in the next few weeks in the name of justice and human rights," he said.
Israel had warned it would stop the Rachel Corrie, which had been due to join the flotilla of ships which attempted to run the blockade earlier this week but was held up for technical reasons.
Israeli naval commandos raided the flotilla before dawn on Monday in a bungled operation which left nine foreign activists dead, most of them Turkish, and scores wounded, among them seven Israeli soldiers, and sparked an international outcry.