Israel stops activists' boat

2010-09-28 14:41

Jerusalem - The Israeli navy boarded a yacht in the Mediterranean on Tuesday to prevent a small group of Jewish activists sailing to Gaza to protest against Israel's blockade of the Palestinian enclave.

A military statement said the British-flagged catamaran Irene was taken over without incident off the Gaza Strip, within the 20-mile nautical zone that Israel defines as Gaza waters. It was taken to the port of Ashdod.

The group of nine activists - from Israel, Britain, Germany and the United States - set sail from Cyprus on Sunday, intent on defying the Israeli blockade of Gaza and highlighting the suffering of Palestinians who live in the territory.

Israel dismissed it as a provocative stunt.

Israel Defence Forces' (IDF) chief spokesperson Avi Benayahu deplored the fact that "naval forces and fighters are being diverted from our main mission" to "a surreal assignment" of intercepting a boatload of activists.

"Its entire intention was to generate media attention and (stage) a provocation. This matter is especially regrettable as we are talking about a group of Jews and of Israeli citizens, and even someone who has worn an IDF officer's uniform."

He was apparently referring to activist Yonatan Shapira, a former IDF pilot and now a member of Combatants for Peace.

Israel's Gaza policies came under scrutiny in May after its marines killed nine Turkish activists in boarding one ship in a flotilla of six vessels trying to reach the Palestinian enclave.

International condemnation of the action persuaded the government to relax restrictions on what Gaza can import. But Israel maintains the naval blockade in what it says is an effort to stop arms being smuggled to the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas, which has controlled the Gaza Strip since 2007.

The Irene was carrying what the activists called a symbolic load of medicine, a water purifying kit and toys.

Israeli peace activist Rami Elhanan told Israel radio shortly before the yacht was boarded that they had no intention of resisting. "We are not violent people and it never occurred to us to use any form of force," said Elhanan, who lost his 14-year-old daughter Smadar to a Palestinian suicide bomber in 1997.