Israeli Navy Boards Gaza-Bound Vessels

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Al Jazeera English

Israeli Navy Boards Gaza-Bound Vessels

Navy forces intercept two boats carrying pro-Palestinian activists to stop them from reaching blockaded territory.

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The Irish ship Saoirse is seen in the Turkish port of Gocek, Mugla, June 2011. (AFP Photo)

Israeli naval forces have boarded two boats carrying pro-Palestinian activists bound for the Gaza Strip, foiling their latest attempt to break the four-year Israeli blockade of the territory.

"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," an Israeli military statement said on Friday.

"The boarding was carried out following numerous calls to the activists onboard and during different points at sea. Following their unwillingness to cooperate, and after ignoring calls to divert to the port of Ashdod, the decision was made to board the vessels and lead them there."

Lieutenant General Benny Gantz, Israel's military chief, earlier issued the instructions after "all attempts to contact" activists aboard the Canadian and Irish vessels had failed, a statement said.

Earlier, three Israeli warships were reported to be moving towards the boats - the Canadian Tahrir and the Irish boat MV Saoirse - which they then surrounded.

Al Jazeera's Casey Kauffman, aboard one of the boats, earlier reported that the Israeli warships had contacted the boat's captain and were approaching it.

Despite the warships on their tail, the boats were continuing to the Gaza Strip, he said. They were 80km off the coast.

The navy vessels earlier warned the boats, carrying supplies and 27 pro-Palestinian activists, that they were entering a closed military zone and told them to change course.

Upon arrival in Ashdod, the activists would be transferred to the custody of the Israeli police and immigration authorities, the military statement added.

The two vessels had left the port of Fethiye in southwest Turkey on Wednesday after Turkish authorities gave them permission to sail to the Greek island of Rhodes.

'Element of surprise'

The US had warned on Thursday that the ships' challenge to the Israeli blockade was dangerous and urged US citizens not to take part.

"My sense of this was that, given the way this came together there was some element of surprise for both the Turkish government and our own government," Victoria Newland, a US State Department spokesperson, said.

She said the US had sought clarification on reports that Turkish warships might be accompanying the activists' vessals and was told "quite emphatically" by Turkey this was not the case.

Early Thursday morning, Al Jazeera's Casey Kauffman, on board one of the two vessels, reported that the activists viewed their attempt more as an expression of solidarity with besieged Gazans rather than delivering them aid.

"It will still bring attention to the situation in Gaza, and the blockade of the Gaza Strip," he said.

Lieutenant-Colonel Avital Leibovich, an Israeli military official, described the latest attempt by the activists as a "provocation", and said Israel would offer to unload any aid supplies on board and deliver them to Gaza.

Sailing under the flag of the Comoros Islands, the Tahrir is carrying six activists, a captain and five journalists.

The Saoirse - sailing under the US flag but carrying mostly Irish nationals - has 15 passengers on board, none of whom are journalists.

'Support from Turkish society'

David Heap, a member of the steering committee on board the Tahrir, told Al Jazeera that the activists chose to leave from Fethiye because of the strained relations between Turkey and Israel.

"The Turkish government has been creating more distance from Israel diplomatically and we know there is support from Turkish society for what we are doing.

"Our judgment was that the Turkish state would not interfere with us if we didn’t make too much of a public issue of our plan to depart from there," Heap told Al Jazeera.

The activists say the new attempt to break the siege on the Gaza Strip is part of a campaign they call "freedom waves", implying that more such efforts will follow.

Both ships were part of previous attempts to break the siege on the Gaza Strip that was stalled when the Greek government refused to let a flotilla leave from its shores in July this year.

The Tahrir, the larger ship of the two, was intercepted by the Greek coast guard with more than 30 pro-Palestinian activists onboard.

Two of them were detained for defying Greece's ban on setting sail to Gaza. The vessel was stopped about 10 minutes after it left port on the island of Crete.

The Irish boat allegedly suffered damage when it was sabotaged while waiting to join the flotilla from Turkish waters. The ship has since been repaired and kept in dry-dock in Turkey.

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