Israel navy halts Gaza-bound boat without violence

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ASHDOD, Israel (AP) — Israeli naval forces on Tuesday intercepted a catamaran carrying nine Jewish activists toward the Gaza Strip, encountering no resistance as they took control of the sailboat and escorted it to shore, the military said.

The incident occurred four months after a deadly Israeli raid on an international flotilla, in which nine Turkish activists, one of them a dual Turkish-American citizen, were killed in clashes with naval commandos.

The Irene, like the earlier flotilla, had been trying to breach Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza.

Israel imposed the blockade three years ago after the Islamic militant Hamas group seized control of Gaza, a crowded seaside territory that borders the southwest corner of Israel.

The closure was meant to prevent Hamas, which has fired thousands of rockets at Israel, from building up its arsenal, weaken Hamas‘ grip on power and put pressure on the group to release a captured Israeli soldier. None of those goals were achieved, however, and the blockade caused widespread misery among Gaza’s 1.5 million people.

The Irene set sail early this week from Turkish-controlled Northern Cyprus.

The passengers, including a former Israeli fighter pilot and an Israeli man whose daughter was killed by a Palestinian suicide bomber, as well as American and European activists, said they wanted to show that not all Jews support the Israeli blockade. They acknowledged ahead of time that it was unlikely they would reach Gaza and said they would not resist.

The military said it took over the boat after the captain ignored two warnings to turn back. “The boarding of the yacht was without incident and no violence of any kind was used by neither the passengers onboard nor the Israel naval forces,” it said.

The Irene was taken to the Israeli port of Ashdod. The boat’s cargo, including medicines, toys and water purifiers, are expected to be transferred into Gaza.

Miri Weingarten, a spokeswoman for the activists who was in touch with them when they were intercepted, said one person was handcuffed as the naval forces boarded the boat.

She said a lawyer for the activists hoped to meet them in Ashdod, and that the group had also asked that a doctor be allowed access to examine an 82-year-old activist on board.

With the peaceful takeover, Israel avoided a repeat of last May’s incident, in which Israeli naval commandos violently clashed with activists wielding clubs and knives on board the Turkish ship. Both the military and the activists have accused each other of provoking the violence.

In the wake of heavy international criticism over the bloodshed, Israel eased its land blockade of Gaza to allow virtually all consumer goods into Gaza.

However, Israeli restrictions on construction materials, desperately needed to rebuild damage from an Israeli military offensive in early 2009, remain in place. And Israel has said it will not loosen the naval blockade on the coastal strip because of concerns that Hamas will smuggle in weapons.

Meanwhile, a lawyer for Irish Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mairead Maguire said she was blocked from entering Israel and detained at an airport lockup after landing early Tuesday in Tel Aviv. She was part of a human rights delegation visiting Israel and the West Bank. Authorities planned to expel her.

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