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Israeli navy intercepts Gaza-bound ship

Oct. 20, 2012 11:46 A.M. (Updated: Oct. 21, 2012 7:46 P.M.)
BETHLEHEM (Ma'an) -- The Israeli navy on Saturday boarded a Finnish ship attempting to break the sea blockade of Gaza and deliver aid to its people.

The navy will take the Estelle to Ashdod port, and passengers will be transferred to the custody of the police and immigration authorities at the Ministry of Interior.

An army statement said navy forces were carrying out directives of the Israeli government "after all attempts to prevent the vessel from reaching the Gaza Strip were made, both via direct contact and through diplomatic channels, but to no avail."

"The boarding was carried out only after numerous calls to the passengers onboard; as a result of their unwillingness to cooperate and after ignoring calls to change course, the decision was made to board the vessel and lead it to the port of Ashdod," the statement said.

The military said its forces took measures to ensure the safety of the passengers and did not use force. The passengers "were attended to and offered food and beverages."

Greece, five of whose citizens were among the activists, said in a statement issued by the Foreign Ministry in Athens that all of the Estelle's passengers were in good health.

Mikael Löfgren, Sweden-based spokesman for the Ship to Gaza group, told Ma'an that the organization was last in contact with the Estelle shortly after 10 a.m.

In his last communication with the group, on-board activist Dror Feiler described being surrounded by five to six military vessels as Israeli masked soldiers attempted to board the ship.

"Then the connection cut and we haven't heard from them since," Löfgren said.

"We have already achieved important goals," he said. The purpose of the voyage was to get the "world's attention to focus on Gaza and the devastating consequences of the blockade."

"Although we didn't reach Gaza's shores this time, I'm confident the world and the Israeli government will realize the blockade is illegal, inhumane and destructive."

Carrying aid, MPs

The Estelle set sail in June around Europe, and left Naples on Oct. 6 heading for Gaza. European MPs and international activists, including Israeli nationals, are on board.

The boat's cargo, listed on the flotilla's website, includes cement, wheel chairs, crutches, toys, musical instruments and 300 footballs.

There were no reports of injury in the boarding on Saturday, although it was not possible to reach passengers.

Löfgren said they had undergone non-violence training in Naples "to avoid tragedies like what happened two years ago," when Israeli forces killed nine activists on board a Turkish ship. "We know from experience that Israeli soldiers are very young, very nervous, and very aggressive," he said.

Activists have mounted several attempts to break the blockade by sea. Most were stopped by Israel, including the one in May 2010 when marines killed nine activists.

An inquiry into that incident commissioned by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon found that Israel's naval blockade on Gaza was legal but faulted the navy for excessive force.
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