Israel navy boards Jewish boat to Gaza 28Sep10 September 29, 2010

by Adel Zaanoun  -  AFP -  28 September 2010

GAZA CITY — Israeli warships on Tuesday intercepted a Jewish activist boat trying to run the naval blockade on Gaza and forced it to change course for a port in southern Israel, organisers told AFP.

“Ten Israeli warships forced the boat to head for Ashdod by force,” said Amjad al-Shawa, a Gaza-based organiser. “They surrendered because they were surrounded. They had no choice,” he added.

Shortly before the takeover, the warships had surrounded the vessel, the Irene, and warned they would stop it by force if it stayed on course for the Hamas-run enclave.

The Israeli military confirmed the navy had boarded the tiny, British-flagged boat, saying there had been no violence on the part of the troops or the passengers.

“A short while ago, navy forces took over the yacht Irene and it is now being led with its passengers to Ashdod port. During the takeover there was no violence of any sort, either on the part of the troops or the passengers,” a statement said.

Describing the boat’s attempt to reach Gaza as a “provocation”, the statement said the captain had ignored repeated warnings by the navy and had entered a closed naval zone, prompting the interception.

Media reports said the passengers had been handcuffed and their phones confiscated, but organisers were unable to confirm the details, saying they had not managed to make contact with the Irene since it was taken over.

Yonatan Shapira, one of the Israeli activists on board, told AFP on Sunday that the crew would not cooperate if asked to sail the vessel to Ashdod.

Ahead of the takeover, Shapira told AFP by satellite telephone that the navy had contacted the Irene and ordered it to change course.

“They said we were approaching an area under naval blockade and told us to change course,” he said as the boat reached the edge of Gaza’s territorial waters, some 20 nautical miles from the coast.

The navy also warned that the passengers and crew would be held legally liable if they insisted on heading to Gaza, especially those with Israeli nationality. Five of those on board are Israelis.

The sound of a voice over a megaphone urging the Irene to “change course” could be heard in the background.

The boat is carrying seven Jewish activists from Israel, Britain, Germany and the United States, and two journalists, one of whom is an Israeli.

The activists had insisted they were not looking for a confrontation with Israeli forces.

“We have a policy of non-violence and non-confrontation,” Shapira, a former Israeli pilot, told AFP on Sunday. “But if the Israeli army stops the boat, we will not help them to take it to Ashdod.”

In the past, Israel has said it would deliver any humanitarian cargo to Gaza overland after towing such boats to Ashdod.

In May, Israeli forces intercepted a six-ship flotilla heading for Gaza but the raid went badly wrong and nine Turkish activists — including one with US citizenship — were killed, prompting a wave of international condemnation.

Israel said its troops resorted to force only after they were attacked while rappelling onto the deck of the lead ship. Pro-Palestinian activists on board say the soldiers opened fire as soon as they landed.

The voyage of the Irene is organised by the London-based Jews for Justice for Palestinians.

Prominent British supporters listed on its website include humourist and actor Stephen Fry and Marion Kozak, the mother of newly-elected Labour Party leader Ed Miliband and of former foreign minister David Miliband.

On board the Irene are 82-year-old Holocaust survivor Reuven Moskovitz and Rami Elhanan, an Israeli whose daughter Smadar was killed in a 1997 suicide bombing in Jerusalem.

With them are a German nurse, British and US peace activists, Shapira’s brother and a reporter for Israel’s Channel 10 television.

Israel and Egypt sealed Gaza’s borders after militants there captured an Israeli soldier in June 2006 and tightened the blockade a year later when the Islamist Hamas movement seized power, allowing in only humanitarian aid.

Israel eased the closures to allow in all purely civilian goods in the aftermath of the deadly flotilla raid, but still restricts dual-use items such as construction materials that could be used to build militant fortifications.

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