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GAZA STRIP: Aid boat docks in Lebanon after being damaged

December 31, 2008 |  4:20 am

BoatThey sailed toward the Gaza Strip coast on a mission to provide the Palestinian territory's besieged civilians with medical care.

But the group of international activists was forbidden Tuesday by the Israeli navy from reaching  its destination.

Their small boat was seriously rammed by Israeli warships, the activists said, and they were warned to leave immediately.

"We were so shocked that at first we didn't react," said Caoimhe Butterly, an activist with the Free Gaza Movement, a U.S.-based organization that sent the ship Dignity from Larnaca, Cyprus, to Palestinian shores with 3 tons of medical supplies and three doctors aboard.

Butterly said that the ship was well in international waters when Israeli gunboats fired flares and flashed huge floodlights before ramming the boat three times and hitting the side of it hard:

"We began taking on water and, for a few minutes, we all feared for our lives.... After they rammed us, they started screaming at us as we were frantically getting the lifeboats ready and putting on our life jackets. They kept yelling that if we didn't turn back they would shoot us."

The boat, with its bow and port damaged, reached the Lebanese southern port city of Tyre and was greeted by scores of Lebanese and Palestinians.

According to Reuters, the ship had a huge hole. One of the activists, David Halpin, told the news service:

"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.... I thought I was going to die. I'm 68. None of us had life jackets on. We are appalled at this barbaric act."

Among the boat's passengers was Cynthia McKinney, a former U.S. congresswoman and Green Party presidential candidate, who was reportedly traveling to Gaza "to assess the impact of Israel's military onslaught against the civilian population."

Meanwhile, the Israelis had a different version of the incident. Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor  reportedly said the aid boat had failed to respond to radio contact and rebuffed accusations that there had been any shooting.

After launching airstrikes against the Gaza Strip on Saturday, Israel declared the territory's coastal area  a closed military zone, barring aid ships from approaching.

Since August, Free Gaza movement boats have delivered aid to Gaza five times in defiance of Israel's  blockade.

-- Raed Rafei in Beirut

Photo: Dignity, a Gaza Strip-bound boat carrying international activists and aid, docks in the southern Lebanese port city of Tyre on Tuesday after being damaged in an encounter with Israeli naval forces. Credit: Haidar Hawila / Reuters

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