Israel stops two ships from reaching blockaded Gaza Strip

Israel stops two ships from reaching blockaded Gaza Strip

An attempt by pro-Palestinian activists to break Israel's naval blockade of the Gaza Strip failed Friday, with an Israeli naval commando boarding two ships heading for the salient, after they refused demands to turn back or sail to an Israeli port, dpa reported.

The 27 activists on board the two ships - the Irish Saoirse and the Canadian Tahrir - offered no resistance and there were no casualties, an Israeli military spokeswoman said.

The ships were boarded as the crossed they blockade line, about 30 kilometres off the coast.

After boarding, they were being taken to the Israeli port of Ashdod, about 35 kilometres north of Gaza City. There the activists would be handed to the Israeli police and immigration authorities, an Israeli military statement said.

The ships had been intercepted some hours before in international waters.

They were told to turn around, sail to Egypt, or to the Israeli port of Ashdod, where the goods they were carrying would be transferred to the Gaza Strip after being inspected, said military spokeswoman Lieutenant-Colonel Avital Leibovich, said.

According to a video released by the Israeli military, the Tahrir, when stopped and questioned, replied that it was heading for Gaza. It gave its port of origin as "Turkey" and, in reply to a question, said it carried no cargo on board.

Organizers of the voyage have said the 27 activists on board the two ships have been told not to resist any Israeli navy attempt to intercept them.

The two ships sailed from Turkey on Wednesday. The blockade-breaking attempt, called Freedom Waves to Gaza, had been kept a secret until the ships were underway, to avoid Israeli and international efforts to stop it.

An attempt in July to break the Gaza blockade - denounced by Israel as a provocation - was foiled when Greece prevented eight boats, calling themselves the Freedom Flotilla 2, from sailing from its ports.

Some of the activists in the latest attempt were the same as those who participated in July.

In March, Israel foiled an attempt to smuggle weapons into Gaza by intercepting the Victoria, a German-owned, Liberian-flagged ship sailing from Syria via Turkey to Egypt. The vessel, intercepted some 200 nautical miles west off the Israeli coast, had 3,000 rockets and shells hidden on board..

In May last year, Israeli naval commandos intercepted a nine-ship flotilla heading for the Gaza Strip.

Eight of the vessels were boarded peacefully, but violence broke out on the ninth ship, the Turkish Mavi Marmara, and eight Turkish pro-Palestinian activists and an American of Turkish descent were killed.

A UN report published in early September found that the commandos had used "excessive and unreasonable" force in taking over the ship, but also faced "organized and violent resistance from a group of passengers."

The report also declared the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip legal.

Israel imposed its blockade on the Strip in June 2006, when militants snatched an Israeli soldier during a cross-border raid. The siege was tightened a year later, when Hamas, which advocates violent resistance to Israel, seized full control of the enclave.

Following international criticism of the interception of the nine-ship flotilla in May 2010, Israel significantly relaxed its sanctions on the types of good being allowed into the Strip, but still insists on checking shipments and has slapped an embargo on anything which can be used to manufacture weapons.

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