RAMALLAH - Twenty-one international peace activists were seized by Israeli naval frigates in international waters Tuesday as their boat 'The Spirit of Humanity' tried to carry humanitarian aid to Gaza.
The activists, including former U.S. Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney and Irish Nobel Peace laureate Mairead Maguire, and nationals from 11 other countries were part of the Free Gaza Movement (FGM) efforts to break Israel's naval and border blockade of Gaza.
The activists were taken to Israel's Ashdod port and from there to detention cells at Ben Gurion international airport in Tel Aviv where they await deportation.
"They simply kidnapped the passengers," said FGM founding member Greta Berlin. "I call on the Israeli occupation forces to release our people immediately. It's funny. What are they going to do? Deport us? The last place we wanted to reach was Israel."
The Spirit of Humanity left Cyprus Monday after receiving security clearance from the Cypriot authorities. It was carrying three tonnes of medical supplies and some toys.
The boat was intercepted by naval gun vessels in the early hours of Tuesday morning. The crew was warned that if they did not return to Cyprus they would be fired on. The boat refused to follow the Israeli order, and continued to make its way to Gaza.
The Israeli navy then jammed the boat's instrumentation, blocking its GPS, radar and navigation systems. The aid boat was surrounded by several naval gunboats until armed naval commandos forcibly boarded it and towed it back to Ashdod port.
"We didn't come with guns and weapons, but just with humanitarian aid, in an attempt to break the siege of Gaza and to tell the apathetic world about what is happening in the Strip, especially after the last war," FGM chairperson Huwaida Araf said in an interview with the Nazareth-based radio station Al- Shams.
"This is an outrageous violation of international law against us. Our boat was not in Israeli waters, and we were on a human rights mission to the Gaza Strip," said former presidential candidate McKinney.
"President Obama just told Israel to let in humanitarian and reconstruction supplies, and that's exactly what we tried to do," she added.
"The aid we were carrying is a symbol of hope for the people of Gaza, hope that the sea route would open for them, and they would be able to transport their own materials to begin to reconstruct the schools, hospitals and thousands of homes destroyed during the onslaught of Operation Cast Lead," said Maguire, who won the 1976 Nobel Peace Prize for her work in Northern Ireland.
"Our mission is a gesture to the people of Gaza that we stand by them and that they are not alone," she added.
The U.S.-based Free Gaza Movement has sent a number of siege-breaking vessels to Gaza with aid supplies in an endeavour to not only deliver desperately needed goods but also to draw international attention to the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.
According to an International Committee of the Red Cross report released Monday, Palestinians living in Gaza are "trapped in despair".
Thousands of Gazans whose homes were destroyed during Israel's December-January war are still without shelter despite pledges of almost 4.5 billion dollars in aid, because Israel refuses to allow cement and other building material into the Gaza Strip, the Red Cross report says.
The report says hospitals are struggling to meet the needs of their patients due to Israel's disruption of medical supplies.
Israel allows only a limited amount of humanitarian aid into Gaza. Items such as chocolate, cigarettes, fruit juice, pumpkin, schoolbooks, clothes, toys, seedlings and musical instruments are amongst the many items banned.
Several of FGM's vessels have managed to reach the stricken coastal territory with supplies, but others have been forcibly stopped.
The last vessel, also with McKinney on board, was rammed by an Israeli naval vessel several times. The badly damaged boat was forced to limp to Beirut port as it began to take water.
While most of the activists aboard Spirit were due be deported, several of the activists hold Israeli passports, including Huwaida Arraf.
Arraf, a law lecturer, was born in the U.S. to a Palestinian family from within Israel's Green Line, or internationally recognised borders. She is also a U.S. citizen.
Deporting her could be problematic, and she may face court for attempting to enter Gaza. Israeli law bans Israeli citizens from entering the coastal territory.
Several attempts by IPS to contact Arraf in detention were unsuccessful. FGM reported that it had also been unable to contact activists on their cell phones in detention.
Meanwhile, Berlin vows to continue trying to break Israel's siege on Gaza.
"It isn't over till the fat lady sings. They took our boat, so we'll get a freighter. Israel has no right to keep 1.5 million residents under siege, to occupy Gaza, and to turn it into one big refugee camp."