Israel intercepts protest vessel trying to break naval blockade of Gaza

The Israeli navy has intercepted a boat carrying female pro-Palestinian activists trying to break Israel’s naval blockade of the Gaza Strip and said it was escorting the vessel to shore.

The Israeli military said the interception had been brief and there had been no injuries, unlike the 2010 takeover of an international flotilla in which 10 Turks were killed in clashes with Israeli troops.

The incident occurred on the same day as the Israeli air force struck a series of targets in Gaza in response to the firing of a Palestinian rocket. There were no reports of injuries on either side.

The boat was sponsored by the Freedom Flotilla Coalition, a group of pro-Palestinian groups based mostly in Europe. The Dutch-registered vessel was carrying 13 activists headed by Mairead Maguire, an Irish Nobel peace prize laureate. A retired US colonel and a former South African Olympic athlete were also on board, along with women from the UK, Sweden, Russia and Malaysia.

Zaher Darwish, one of the flotilla’s coordinators, said the boat had been intercepted about 40 miles (60 kilometres) from Gaza and was not carrying aid. He said the goal was “symbolic” — to call attention to the Israeli naval blockade, which he said was illegal.

“People have the right to move. We have the right to move,” he said. “We are aiming to the conscience of the people. And the conscience of governments. They have to act and express their non-acceptance of this situation.”

Israel and Egypt imposed a blockade on Gaza after Hamas seized power in 2007. It has crippled Gaza’s already weak economy, and prevented tens of thousands of people from traveling abroad for jobs, studies and other visits. Unemployment in Gaza stands at 40%.

Israel says the restrictions are needed to prevent Hamas importing weapons, and that it has eased the blockade to allow more goods in. It considers Hamas a terrorist group, and has fought three wars against it since the militant group assumed power.

In a statement on Wednesday, the Israeli military said the navy carried out the raid after exhausting all diplomatic channels. It said forces ordered the boat to change course, and when it refused, they boarded and searched it. The search was “uneventful”.

The boat was being escorted to the Israeli port of Ashdod, the military said, a process that was expected to take several hours. There was no word on what would happen to the people on board. In the past, activists have been arrested and quickly deported.

The raid was in sharp contrast to events in 2010, when Israeli naval forces were confronted by crowds of activists armed with pipes and knives as they boarded a Turkish ship. Ten activists, one of them a dual US citizen, were killed during violent clashes.

The incident contributed to six years of diplomatic tension with Turkey that was resolved only this year in a deal that included an Israeli apology and reparations, Turkish pledges to limit Hamas activity on its territory and a restoration of full diplomatic relations.

Wednesday’s rocket strike landed in Sderot, a southern Israeli town on the Gaza border. No one was wounded, and such incidents have been rare since a 50-day war between Israel and Hamas in mid-2014.

Israel struck a series of Hamas posts in Gaza in response. An obscure group that said it drew inspiration from Islamic State claimed responsibility for firing the rocket, but Israel holds Hamas responsible for all attacks emanating from the territory.

The Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum urged international activists to continue sending flotillas to Gaza. “This is Israeli piracy and organised state terrorism reflecting how deep the Israeli entity has gone in its aggression, crimes and violations against our people and those who show solidarity with it,” he said.

The Guardian