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Israel intercepts aid ship peacefully

Facing international scorn for Monday's attack on a flotilla headed to Gaza, it took a softer tack.

JERUSALEM - Learning hard lessons from Monday's deadly raid of a pro-Palestinian aid flotilla, Israel's navy on Saturday seized without incident a second protest vessel trying to reach the shores of the Gaza Strip.

But even as Israel succeeded in preventing the boats from reaching their destination, it was struggling in the larger battle of defending its controversial blockade of Gaza to the outside world.

Israel's handling of the high-seas interception that left nine activists dead Monday continued to reverberate internationally. Anti-Israel protesters marched through London on Saturday. Swedish dockworkers are threatening to boycott Israeli ships in a weeklong protest. Vietnam canceled a scheduled visit by Israeli President Shimon Peres.

Although the aid ships were intercepted, the back-to-back challenges to the blockade by the pro-Palestinian advocacy group Free Gaza have turned an international spotlight on Israel's policies in Gaza.

"This is an historic opportunity," said Chris Gunness, spokesman for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which aids Palestinian refugees. "The outrageous tragedy on the high seas has put world attention on the blockade and built considerable political momentum around opening the sea and land routes."

Israeli officials say the restrictions, imposed in 2007, are necessary to prevent weapons from entering the coastal enclave and to isolate Hamas, the Islamic group that took control of Gaza that year and that refuses to recognize Israel's right to exist. Israel, the United States, and the European Union consider Hamas a terrorist organization.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu alleged Saturday that without the naval blockade, Islamic extremists would turn Gaza into an "Iranian port."

But most in the international community view Israel's restrictions - which include tight controls over the movement of goods and people over land borders - as excessive.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called Israel's restrictions wrong and counterproductive. A U.S. National Security Council spokesman, Mike Hammer, on Friday called the blockade unsustainable.

The Obama administration says it is working behind the scenes to prod Netanyahu to relax the policy.

Turkey, once an important Muslim ally for Israel, is threatening to break off diplomatic relations unless the siege is lifted.

Netanyahu's government has maintained a public stance of defiance. "Israel will continue to exercise its right to self-defense," he said in a statement Saturday after the latest ship seizure.

But in recent days, his Cabinet has begun quietly considering ways to relax some of the restrictions to permit more humanitarian supplies into Gaza, officials said.

Israel is also considering easing the naval blockade in return for some kind of international monitoring group that would inspect all vessels heading to Gaza, Israeli news media reported.

Netanyahu praised his military's latest takeover of the Cambodian-flagged ship Rachel Corrie, named after the U.S. activist killed with an Israeli bulldozer in 2003.

The ship carried 11 passengers - including Irish Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mairead Corrigan and a former U.N. deputy secretary-general - and eight crew members, along with 1,200 tons of medical and construction supplies.

The standoff had a dramatically different ending from Monday's raid of the Turkish-flagged Mavi Marmara, in which nine of that ship's 680 passengers were killed when they tried to fight off Israeli commandos.

Rather than a nighttime raid in which commandos rappelled from helicopters, as in the first raid, Saturday's takeover of the Rachel Corrie started at daybreak, when Israeli ships began shadowing the vessel. They radioed several warnings before passengers agreed to allow Israeli soldiers aboard, military officials said.

The commandos boarded it from speedboats in international waters about 20 miles from Gaza, and forced the ship to sail to the Israeli port of Ashdod.

Israeli military accounts could not yet be verified with activists, who were cut off from their telephones and the media. They were expected to be deported.

The cargo aboard the Rachel Corrie, after being inspected by Israeli authorities, is to be forwarded by land to Gaza. But how much of the cargo would make it into Gaza remained unclear because of Israel's tight controls over what goods are allowed into the territory.

The aid cargo includes 500 tons of cement, which Israel severely restricts.

Critics say the list of banned goods is arbitrary and contradictory.

Cinnamon is allowed, but not coriander, according to Gisha, an Israeli advocacy group that has challenged the restrictions in court. Oil is acceptable, but not vinegar. Canned fruit is prohibited, but canned vegetables are permitted.

Israeli officials argue that many of the banned goods are luxury items or could have dual purposes, saying that Hamas could use cement to build bomb shelters, and pipes and nails to make homemade rockets.

Aid groups say the policy has done little to weaken Hamas, which continues to rearm itself through illegal smuggling tunnels from Egypt. Instead, the restrictions have devastated Gaza's economy and left 80 percent of residents dependent upon international aid.

Wedlock to Cost Citizenship

An Egyptian appeals court on Saturday upheld a ruling that orders the Interior Ministry to strip citizenship from Egyptians married to Israeli women.

The case underlines the deep animosity many Egyptians still hold toward Israelis, despite a peace treaty signed between the two countries in 1979.

In upholding last year's lower court ruling, the appeals court said the Interior Ministry should present each marriage case to the Cabinet on an individual basis. The Cabinet would then rule on whether to strip the Egyptian of his citizenship.

It said officials should take into consideration whether a man married an Israeli Arab or a Jew when making its decision.

Saturday's decision cannot be appealed. No figures have been released by the government on Egyptians married to Israeli women, but some estimates put the number around 30,000. Israeli officials said they had no comment.

- Associated Press