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New aid ship heads to Gaza, Israel vows to stop it

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ISTANBUL (AP) -- An aid ship trying to break the blockade of Gaza could reach Israel's 20-mile (32-kilometer) exclusion zone late today, an activist said, but Israel's prime minister has vowed the ship will not reach land.

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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, said in Nicosia 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.

By Friday afternoon local time, the ship was 150 miles (240 kilometers) from the coast of Gaza in international waters, the group said on its website. Irish Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mairead McGuire and the former head of the U.N. Oil-for-Food program in Iraq, Denis Halliday, were among the 11 passengers on board.

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 has instructed the military to act with sensitivity in preventing the Rachel Corrie from landing and avoid harming those on board, 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 today only that unspecified "actions" were taken when the boats were still far from Gaza that delayed the flotilla. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the information was classified.

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