Israeli Navy Intercepts Lebanese Boat of Gaza Aid

Published on
by
the Associated Press

Israeli Navy Intercepts Lebanese Boat of Gaza Aid

by
Steve Weizman

A Lebanese journalist holds an anti-Israel placard during a protest in front of the Al Jazeera TV office in Beirut February 5, 2009, against the Israeli seizure of a freighter trying to break the blockade of the Gaza Strip. It was the first apparent attempt by a foreign ship carrying aid to reach the Palestinian enclave since Israel ended its 22-day offensive in the Gaza Strip two weeks ago. (Reuters/ Mohamed Azakir/Lebanon)

JERUSALEM - The Israeli navy intercepted a ship delivering 60 tons of supplies to the Gaza Strip from Lebanon on Thursday in the latest bid to defy Israel's blockade of the militant-held territory.

The Israelis fired at the ship before boarding it and beating those on board, said reporters from Arab TV stations Al-Jadeed and Al-Jazeera who were on the vessel.

Gunfire could be heard in the background of the telephoned reports aired by their stations.

The Israeli navy said no gunshots were fired on the ship as it boarded and seized the vessel. The navy towed the ship, which set sail Tuesday from Lebanon, to the southern Israeli port of Ashdod where it could be seen moored at the quayside.

Lebanon's prime minister condemned the "blatant attack" and one of the organizers of the voyage called it a kidnapping. But Israel said the ship tried to slip past its navy after agreeing to sail to Egypt instead.

The Israeli military said those on board the ship, the Tali, would be handed over to Israeli immigration authorities _ and that the aid would be transferred to Gaza by land.

Israel has kept Gaza's cargo crossings largely closed since the Hamas militant group seized control of the coastal strip in June 2007.

Disagreements over opening the Gaza blockade led Hamas negotiators to leave talks in Egypt on Thursday on a long-term cease-fire with Israel. The Hamas team was later stopped at an Egypt-Gaza border crossing with millions of dollars and Euros in their suitcases, an Egyptian security official said.

The organizers of the aid ship, Lebanese leftist political and human rights activists, said 18 people were on board and that the cargo included medicine, food, toys and basic humanitarian supplies such as mattresses and blankets.

Among the passengers was 86-year-old Greek Catholic priest Hillarion Capucci who was serving as an archbishop in Jerusalem in 1974 when Israel convicted him of using his diplomatic status to smuggle arms to Palestinian militants. He was later released from jail at the intervention of the Vatican and deported.

The Free Gaza Movement, which did not organize the Lebanese voyage but has successfully sent several boatloads of activists to Gaza in the past said one of its British volunteers, Theresa McDermott of Edinburgh, was also on board.

Israel says the blockade of Gaza is a response to repeated Hamas rocket attacks on southern Israel and is necessary to keep arms from reaching Hamas. After Israel ended a three-week military offensive in Gaza last month with an informal cease-fire, Hamas has been trying to get the border crossings reopened as part of a long-term cease-fire.

But Egyptian efforts for a formal long-term deal took a downturn Thursday when a senior Hamas official said his delegation was leaving Cairo without an agreement because of differences over opening the border crossings.

Egypt is acting as mediator because Israel and Hamas do not have official contacts.

Hamas officials had said they are ready to commit to a cease-fire with Israel for at least a year in exchange for a full opening of Gaza's borders.

But Hamas negotiator Mohammed Nasr said Israel was trying to avoid fully reopening the Gaza borders. He said his group would wait for answers after the Egyptians talk to Israel.

The Hamas delegation later was stopped from returning to Gaza with $9 million and 2 million euros in their suitcases, an Egyptian security official said.

The official said the group initially refused to be searched by Egyptian authorities at the Rafah border crossing. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

The money stayed in Egypt while the delegation was allowed to return to Gaza, said another security official. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity, as they were not authorized to speak to the media.

The Lebanese ship was the latest in a string of vessels that tried to break the Israeli blockade. Israel has permitted several ships to reach Gaza but blocked others, including a Libyan freighter that was forced to turn around last December.

The Israeli military said the Tali's shipment had not been cleared by Israeli authorities. It said a naval patrol spoke by radio to the Tali and told its skipper the ship would not be allowed to enter Gaza. The two sides agreed that the vessel would instead sail to the Egyptian port of El-Arish.

But on Thursday morning, the ship tried to double back and slip past the navy, Israel said, raising concerns that it might be trying to smuggle arms into Gaza.

"As a result of the actions taken by the boat crew, an Israel navy force intercepted, boarded, and took control of the cargo boat, directing it toward (the port) of Ashdod, Israel," the statement said. "No gunshots were fired on board during the boarding and capturing of the cargo boat."

Interviewed on Army Radio after the ship was searched, however, a naval officer identified only as Lt.Col.A. said no weapons were found.

Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora said he strongly condemned "the blatant attack" on the ship and held Israel responsible for the safety of the passengers.

"This Israeli aggression is not surprising," he said. "Israel, which commits massacres against innocent civilians in Lebanon and Gaza, will not stop at committing an aggression in front of the world against a ship carrying humanitarian aid."

A Syrian Foreign Ministry statement sharply condemned what it called Israel's act of "maritime piracy."

AP Writers Zeina Karam in Beirut, Ashraf Sweilam in Rafah, Egypt and Sarah El Deeb in Cairo contributed to this report.

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