Israel escorts flotilla defying Gaza blockade
TEL AVIV - The Israeli navy was escorting an activist vessel defying its blockade of Gaza to port on Monday after taking it over without the deadly force that marred a similar attempt in 2010.
Among the passengers on the commandeered ship were Tunisia's former president Moncef Marzouki and Arab-Israeli lawmaker Basel Ghattas.
A flotilla of four boats carrying pro-Palestinian activists had been seeking to reach Gaza to highlight the Israeli blockade of the territory that they called "inhumane and illegal."
Three of the boats were said to have turned back while a fourth, the Marianne of Gothenburg, was boarded by the Israeli navy and was being escorted to the Israeli port of Ashdod.
The activists' campaign came as Israel faced heavy international pressure over its actions in Gaza, with a UN report last week saying both the Jewish state and Palestinian militants may have committed war crimes during a 50-day conflict in the besieged coastal enclave last summer.
The reconstruction of thousands of homes in Gaza destroyed during the fighting between Israel and the territory's Islamist de facto rulers, Hamas, is yet to begin, and both Israel's blockade and a lack of support from international donors have been blamed.
After the overnight operation to stop the flotilla, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lauded the navy's actions and insisted his government was right to take action against Hamas.
"In accordance with international law, the Israeli navy advised the vessel several times to change course," the military said in a statement.
"Following their refusal, the navy visited and searched the vessel in international waters in order to prevent their intended breach of the maritime blockade of the Gaza Strip.
"The forces have reported that use of force was unnecessary, and that the process was uneventful," it added. "The vessel is currently being escorted to Ashdod port and is expected to arrive within 12-24 hours."
A military spokeswoman confirmed that the vessel was the Swedish-flagged Marianne of Gothenburg, part of the so-called Freedom Flotilla III.
Organisers of the flotilla said the vessel was a fishing trawler carrying medical equipment and solar panels with 18 people on board, including the Tunisian ex-president.
The Freedom Flotilla Coalition questioned Israel's version of the operation and said on its website that it had "no reason to believe that Marianne's capture was 'uneventful'".
"We demand that the Israeli government cease and desist the illegal detainment of peaceful civilians travelling in international waters in support of humanitarian aid," it said.
- 'Conscience of humanity' -
The other three ships had changed their course and were "heading back to their ports of origin," according to a statement by "Canadian Boat to Gaza," issued by the activists before the Israeli navy commandeered the Marianne.
"We once again call on the government of Israel to finally lift the blockade on Gaza," the statement said. "Our destination remains the conscience of humanity."
Netanyahu dismissed the organisers' goals.
"This flotilla is nothing but a demonstration of hypocrisy and lies that is only assisting the Hamas terrorist organisation and ignores all of the horrors in our region," he said in a statement.
"Preventing entry by sea was done in accordance with international law and even received backing from a committee of the UN secretary general."
Netanyahu said the blockade was necessary to stop weapons from arriving in the Gaza Strip by sea.
Israel imposed its blockade on Gaza in 2006 after Hamas captured an Israeli soldier, and tightened it a year later when the Islamist movement consolidated control of the territory.
A number of flotillas had reached Gaza prior to May 2010, when 10 Turkish activists aboard the Mavi Marmara were killed in an Israeli raid on a six-ship flotilla.
Since then, several ships manned by pro-Palestinian activists have tried to reach the shores of Gaza, but they have all been repelled by the Israeli navy.
Critics of the blockade have called for it to be fully lifted to allow reconstruction, warning that without it an ongoing humanitarian crisis could fuel further conflict.
Some "1.8 million Palestinians (are) living in disgraceful, prison-like conditions as a result of Israel's military siege of both sea and land," lawmaker Ghattas said in a letter to Netanyahu before the flotilla set sail.