Israel navy halts Gaza-bound boat without violence

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ASHDOD, Israel (AP) — Israeli naval forces seized a sailboat Tuesday carrying nine Jewish activists toward blockaded Gaza without meeting any resistance and then escorted it safely to shore, the military said.

The incident came four months after a deadly Israeli raid on a Turkish-led international flotilla, in which Israeli naval commandos killed nine Turkish activists, one of them a dual Turkish-American citizen.

The sailboat Irene, like the earlier flotilla, was trying to breach Israel’s three-year-old naval blockade of the Palestinian territory.

Pro-Palestinian activists have sailed a string of blockade-busting boats to the coastal strip over the past two years. Few have reached Gaza, but they have become a headache for Israeli security, shaken the country’s policies toward Gaza and damaged its image abroad.

On Tuesday, a U.N. expert panel investigating the deadly May raid accused Israel of suppressing seized footage from the Turkish-led flotilla.

Israel imposed the blockade in 2007 after the Islamic militant Hamas group seized Gaza, a crowded seaside territory on Israel’s southwest corner.

Israel intended to stop Hamas, which has fired thousands of rockets toward Jewish communities, from building up its arsenal, weaken the group’s grip on power and pressure them to release a captured Israeli soldier. None of those goals have been achieved, and the blockade deepened the misery among Gaza’s impoverished population of 1.5 million people.

Responding to the anger after the bloody raid on the Turkish flotilla, Israel significantly eased the blockade.

The Irene set sail earlier this week from Turkish-controlled Northern Cyprus.

The passengers included a former Israeli fighter pilot; an Israeli man whose daughter was killed by a Palestinian suicide bomber, Rami Elhanan, and Jewish American and European activists. The passengers said they wanted to show that not all Jews support the Israeli blockade. They acknowledged that it was unlikely that they would reach Gaza and said they would not resist.

The military said it took over the boat after the captain ignored two warnings to turn back.

“No violence of any kind was used,” it said.

Army footage showed two gunboats flanking the Irene before black-clad commandos jumped aboard and seized control. The boat was then tugged to the southern Israeli port of Ashdod, flanked by three naval vessels.

The boat’s cargo, including medicines, toys and water purifiers, was expected to be transferred into Gaza.

A lawyer for the activists met the detained Israeli passengers in Ashdod and said they were likely to be released by Tuesday evening, said Elhanan’s 18-year-old son, Yigal, who spoke to the lawyer.

“At first we were worried. We didn’t know what the army will do, we didn’t know what the sea will do, but now it’s OK,” said the younger Elhanan. “We are very proud of him.”

The foreigners were transported to an immigration lockup, said Miri Weingarten, a spokeswoman for the activists. They are likely to be speedily deported. Israeli officials confiscated the passengers’ phones, making communication difficult.

With Tuesday’s takeover, Israel avoided a repeat of last May’s incident, in which naval commandos clashed with activists wielding clubs and knives on board the Turkish ship. The military and the activists accuse each other of provoking the violence.

In the wake of heavy international criticism over the bloodshed, Israel eased its land blockade of Gaza to allow most formerly banned consumer goods into Gaza.

However, Israeli restrictions on construction materials, desperately needed to rebuild damage from an Israeli military offensive in early 2009, remain in place, as do travel restrictions that prevent most Gazans from leaving the tiny territory. And Israel has said it will not loosen the naval blockade on the coastal strip because of concerns that Hamas will smuggle in weapons.

Israel is still grappling with rippling reverberations of the May flotilla raid. In Geneva, three independent U.N.-appointed experts investigating the incident said Israel was suppressing footage of the incident it seized from the passengers.

Karl T. Hudson-Phillips, a former judge at the International Criminal Court who chaired the panel, said Israel’s strategy was “to control information and to have a monopoly on versions as to what existed.”

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor rejected the charge, saying the report’s authors had no way of knowing what footage Israel had and therefore what — if anything — was suppressed.

In a related development, Irish Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mairead Maguire was blocked from entering Israel and detained at an airport lockup after landing early Tuesday in Tel Aviv. She was part of a human rights delegation visiting Israel and the West Bank. Authorities planned to expel her.

Palmor said that since Maguire had been deported from Israel for taking part in an earlier Gaza-bound flotilla, she could not legally enter Israel for several years.

Palmor said Maguire was aware of that, calling her entry attempt a “deliberate provocation.” He added, “Unfortunately, a lady who has been distinguished with international honors for her contribution to peace is now diluting her prestige in useless and childish confrontations.”

Maguire, 66, is an outspoken champion of Palestinian statehood. Israel has banned other pro-Palestinian activists from entering, including Jewish-American linguist Noam Chomsky in May.


Associated Press writers Diaa Hadid and Ben Hubbard in Jerusalem and Frank Jordans in Geneva contributed to this report.


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