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Israel navy intercepts ships off Gaza coast

Nov. 4, 2011 4:17 P.M. (Updated: Nov. 6, 2011 10:39 A.M.)
BETHLEHEM (Ma'an) -- The Israeli navy on Friday boarded two international ships carrying pro-Palestinian activists who were trying to break the blockade on the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, a military statement said.

The Irish-flagged Saoirse ("Freedom") and the Canadian ship Tahrir ("Liberation") were intercepted by naval commandos in international waters off the Gaza coast, ending the latest attempt to reach the coastal enclave.

"Israel navy soldiers boarded the vessels which were en route to the Gaza Strip, attempting to break the maritime security blockade that is in place in accordance with international law," the statement said.

Israeli authorities said the two boats would be taken to Israeli port Ashdod, where they would undergo security checks. Those on board would be questioned, then taken to prison service holding facilities where they will wait until booked on flights back home.

They have the right to a court hearing before being deported.

A military source said nobody was injured in the operation.

Moves to board the ship came three hours after the navy had first made radio contact with the two vessels, warning them not to continue into naval territory which was under "a maritime security blockade in accordance with international law."

Dublin-based organizers of the Irish boat said they had been contacted by those on board just before 1:00 p.m. to say they were being "rapidly" approached by two Israeli warships, with first radio contact made some 15 minutes later.

"The Israel navy advised the vessels that they may turn back at any point," the military said, adding: "The activists refused to cooperate."

Shortly afterwards, organizers said they had lost contact with the two boats. "We have lost contact with the Tahrir and the Saoirse and are hoping for the best, but we fear the worst," said organizer Dylan Penner.

The boarding was carried out after calls to the activists onboard, the army said in a statement. It also released video footage of the initial boarding of one of the vessels.

"Following their unwillingness to cooperate, and after ignoring calls to divert to Ashdod, the decision was made to board the vessels and lead them there," the statement said.

Huwaida Arraf, a spokeswoman for the activists, said in a statement that "27 civilians on two small boats, carrying only medicine, constituted no security threat to the Israeli state, and that the determination to keep them out is only a furtherance of Israel’s policy of collective punishment, a crime against humanity.

"Despite this Israeli aggression, we will keep coming, wave after wave, by air, sea, and land, to challenge Israel’s illegal policies towards Gaza and all of Palestine," she said.

"Our movement will not stop or be stopped until Palestine is free."

A live map created by the US-based Electronic Intifada website showed the boats were still in international waters when the Israeli army made contact on Friday afternoon.

Organizers of the Tahrir and the Saoirse boats, who aimed to break Israel's blockade of Gaza, said forces had at 1:12 p.m. Gaza time requested the final destination of the boats via radio contact.

Crew responded "the conscience of humanity," and upon second request "the betterment of mankind," media liaison for the flotilla Laurence Davis told Ma'an.

The crews were contacted shortly after viewing two Israeli ships rapidly approaching the flotilla at 48 nautical miles off Gaza's coast, Davis said.

The army said in a statement that it "advised the vessels that they may turn back at any point, thereby not breaking the maritime security blockade, or sailing to a port in Egypt or the port of Ashdod."

"The activists refused to cooperate," it said.

"The IDF Chief of Staff ordered the navy to board the vessels should they refuse our radio requests," the military spokesman's unit tweeted, using the identifying hashtag "provocatilla."

The last time a boat tried to reach Gaza was in July, when a French-flagged yacht, the last remaining boat of an earlier flotilla, was intercepted by the Israeli navy some 40 nautical miles off the coast.

The Irish boat is carrying 15 passengers and crew members. The Canadian boat has 12 people on board, five of them journalists, and has a cargo of $30,000 worth of medical aid and letters of solidarity, organizers said.

Denis Kosseim, a Montreal-based spokesman for the Canadian Boat to Gaza campaign had earlier said that passengers and crew would not put up a fight if Israel moved to intercept the boards.

"Those on board have been instructed not to put up any resistance to the Israeli navy when it tries to intercept them," he said.

"Everyone has signed a document in which they pledged not to put up any resistance should they be boarded by Israel," he added.

On Thursday evening, Israeli warships came within six nautical miles of the two vessels, sparking unfounded fears they might board the ships overnight.

Activists organised a major attempt to break the Israeli blockade in May 2010, when six ships led by the Turkish Mavi Marmara tried to reach Gaza.

Israeli troops stormed the Marmara, killing nine Turkish activists and sparking a diplomatic crisis with Ankara, which expelled the Israeli ambassador and has cut military ties with Israel.

Earlier this year, a second flotilla tried to reach Gaza, but several ships were sabotaged -- which activists blamed on Israel.

Only the French-flagged yacht, the Dignity, was able to attempt the last leg of the journey but was stopped by the navy and those on board were deported.

Israel says its blockade is necessary to prevent weapons from entering the coastal territory, which is run by Hamas.

Two months ago, a UN report on the flotilla raid accused Israel of acting with "excessive force" but found that its naval blockade on the coastal territory was legal.

AFP contributed to this report.
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