JERUSALEM - A Gaza-bound aid ship was just a few dozen miles from the blockaded Palestinian territory early Saturday, and was being tailed by three Israeli naval boats, a pro-Palestinian activist said.
Israeli military officials had vowed earlier to intercept the boat, but activists and authorities expressed optimism that the showdown would not turn violent like Monday's confrontation with the Mavi Marmara, lead ship of the earlier flotilla. During that clash, nine activists were killed and dozens of people were injured, including several Israel commandos.
The latest ship, named Rachel Corrie after the pro-Palestinian activist from the United States killed in Gaza in 2003, is carrying 21 people and 1,200 tons of medical supplies and construction materials to help rebuild schools and hospitals in Gaza, according to officials at Free Gaza, the advocacy group organizing the ships.
"Our action is partly to bring needed aid," said Ramzi Kysia, coordinator for Free Gaza. "But the aid we are bringing is a drop in the bucket. What we need is an end to the blockade and to draw attention to the policies that are forcing Gazans into poverty and aid dependency."
Israel, still reeling from international condemnation over the deadly seizure of the Turkish-flagged Mavi Marmara, vowed to prevent the latest boat from reaching Gaza and to force it to the Israeli port of Ashdod.
The governments of Malaysia and Ireland, whose citizens make up the majority of its passengers, have called on Israel to use restraint. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has urged the military to do its best to avert harm to those on board.
Israel imposed its blockade after Hamas seized power in Gaza, which has 1.5 million inhabitants, in 2007. Netanyahu has rejected calls to end the blockade, saying it prevents massive weapons smuggling and prevents missile attacks on Israel.
Israel has blamed Turkish activists for Monday's death toll, saying they attacked troops with knives and iron bars. The United States and the U.N. Security Council are calling for an independent inquiry.
Some passengers aboard the Cambodian-flagged Rachel Corrie, which is carrying Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mairead Corrigan and a Malaysian parliamentarian - have said they will not resist an Israeli takeover.
One passenger criticized the actions of the Marmara activists, who fought off Israeli soldiers for several minutes, throwing one commando off the boat's deck.
"That is not part of the game," former U.N. Assistant Secretary-General Denis Halliday told Al-Jazeera television Friday from aboard the Rachel Corrie. The Turkish activists "broke the rules. If you do that, you lose control, and you get panic and chaos and death. We are not going to do that."
Free Gaza rejected Israeli offers to accept the humanitarian aid in Ashdod and transfer it to Gaza by land, contending that Israel had reneged on such promises in the past and transfers only a portion of the aid. Israel has been reticent to allow medical equipment, toys, luxury items, and construction materials such as cement into Gaza, saying the latter could be used to build bomb shelters.
In a statement Friday, U.S. National Security Council spokesman Mike Hammer said the United States strongly encouraged the Rachel Corrie to sail to Ashdod.
Also Friday, Turkey signaled it would scale back economic and military cooperation with Israel but was careful not to sever ties.
Deputy Foreign Minister Bulent Arinc said: "We may plan to reduce our relations with Israel to a minimum, but to assume everything involving another country is stopped in an instant, to say we have crossed you out of our address book, is not the custom of our state."
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday described Hamas - the Islamic group that controls Gaza, and which most Western countries consider a terrorist organization - as "resistance fighters" and quoted from Scripture in another denunciation of Israel's commando raid.
In a televised speech to members of his AK Party, Erdogan said of Israel: "I am speaking to them in their own language. The Sixth Commandment says, 'Thou shalt not kill.' Did you not understand?"
With such statements, Turkey's popularity is surging in Gaza. At the port, Turkish flags were hoisted as a sign of gratitude. During a speech Friday to commemorate the Turkish citizens who died on the Marmara, Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh praised the Turkish people and their leader.
Turkey has a history of supporting Palestinians while also having forged a good relationship with Israel.