JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel’s navy boarded two protest boats trying to break the blockade of the Gaza Strip on Friday and towed them to an Israeli port just north of the Palestinian territory, officials said.
The military said forces boarded the boats after repeated calls for them to turn around were ignored. The boarding was done peacefully and nobody was hurt, the military said.
It was the latest attempt by pro-Palestinian activists heading for Gaza by boat to draw attention to a 5-year-old blockade of the impoverished coastal strip that critics say amounts to collective punishment of its residents. Israel says its naval blockade is vital in preventing weapons from reaching violent groups like Hamas, the Iranian-backed militant group that rules the Gaza Strip.
Once the vessels reach the port of Ashdod, the activists will be questioned by police and immigration officials and then sent back to their home countries as soon as possible, said Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld.
There were 27 activists from nine different countries including the U.S. and Ireland aboard the boats.
In Gaza, activist Amjad Shawwa, called for the release of the activists, who he said “were on a civil trip to Gaza to help the Palestinians.”
Israel sees the attempts to break the sea blockade as provocations and publicity stunts. It says the amount of aid in the small boats used by activists is insignificant, as Israel transfers aid to Gaza daily.
Shawwa said he had spoken with activists onboard the boats about an hour before they were boarded, when they were surrounded by Israeli naval vessels. But contact was later severed when the activists’ satellite phones stopped working. It was not clear if Israel was jamming them.
The Israeli military issued a short video clip showing a naval official calling on the ships to turn around. “The Gaza area and coastal region are closed to maritime traffic as part of a blockade imposed for security purposes,” the unidentified officer said.
“Your attempt to enter the Gaza Strip by sea is a violation of international law. We remind you that humanitarian supplies can be delivered to the Gaza Strip by land, and you are welcome to enter Ashdod port and deliver supplies through land crossings.”
Israel’s navy has intercepted similar protest ships in the past.
Last year, Israeli troops killed nine Turkish pro-Palestinian activists when they resisted an Israeli operation to halt a similar flotilla. Each side blamed the other for the violence.
Israel has said its troops fired live ammunition only after they were attacked by activists armed with knives, clubs and metal bars and they felt their lives were in danger. The activists say they were attacked first.
The incident sparked an international outcry and forced Israel to ease its land blockade on Gaza, which was imposed in 2006 and tightened, with Egyptian cooperation, after Hamas seized control of the territory the following year.
Militants in Gaza have fired thousands of rockets into Israel in the past decade, and now have much of southern Israel in range. Gaza militants fired dozens of rockets at residential areas in southern Israel last Saturday, killing one Israeli and injuring several others.
Speaking after prayers at a Gaza City mosque, Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas prime minister, addressed the passengers aboard the boats, saying, “Your message has been delivered whether you make it or not.”
“The siege is unjust and must end,” Haniyeh said.
Associated Press writer Ibrahim Barzak contributed to this report from Gaza City, Gaza Strip.