Israeli Navy Boards Gaza-bound Vessels

Israeli naval forces have boarded two boats carrying pro-Palestinian activists bound for the Gaza Strip, foiling the latest attempt to break the four-year Israeli blockade of the territory.

The Canadian vessel Tahrir and the Irish boat MV Saoirse were in international waters, between 40 and 60 miles (64-96kms) from the coast, when they were intercepted on Friday, according to the Israeli military.

Al Jazeera’s Casey Kauffman, reporting from aboard the Tahrir, earlier said three Israeli warships had contacted the boat’s captain and were approaching it.

The boat, then 80kms off the coast, had continued towards the Gaza Strip with the warships in pursuit, our correspondent said.

The Israeli military said the two vessels, carrying supplies and 27 people, were boarded peacefully after numerous calls to the activists to turn around.

"Following their unwillingness to co-operate, and after ignoring calls to divert to the port of Ashdod, the decision was made to board the vessels and lead them there," the military said in a statement.

In a press release issued by organisers shortly after they said they had lost contact with the two boats, David Heap, a member of the steering committee on board the Tahrir, said the fact the boats had reached international waters was a "victory for the movement".

Both vessels were part of previous attempts to break the siege on the Gaza Strip that was stalled when the Greek government refused to let a flotilla leave from its shores in July this year.

"We are closer to Gaza this time, and hope to get even closer the next time, until we reach our destination," said Heap.

"Despite economic blackmail, despite the previous outsourcing of the blockade to Greece, and despite Israel mobilising a significant portion of its navy to stop us, we are now even closer to reaching Gaza and breaking the blockade."

‘Freedom Waves’

The activists said the latest attempt to break the siege was part of a campaign they call "freedom waves", implying that more such efforts will follow.

Upon arrival in Ashdod, the activists would be transferred to the custody of the Israeli police and immigration authorities, the military statement said.

Reporting from the port of Ashdod, Al Jazeera’s Nicole Johnston noted Friday’s events as "another failed attempt for the season of flotillas to Gaza.

"This attempt was a lot quiter. It left on Wednesday from Turkey. There was no great fanfare with it but again it didn’t succeed in getting past the Israeli navy, and achieving its aim which was to symbolically break this four-year siege on Gaza," she said.

The two vessels left the port of Fethiye in southwest Turkey on Wednesday after Turkish authorities gave them permission to sail to the Greek island of Rhodes.

Early on Thursday morning, Al Jazeera’s Kauffman reported that the activists viewed their attempt more as an expression of solidarity with besieged Gazans rather than an attempt to deliver aid.

"It will still bring attention to the situation in Gaza, and the blockade of the Gaza Strip," he said.

Sailing under the flag of the Comoros Islands, the Tahrir was carrying six activists, a captain and five journalists, including Al Jazeera’s Kauffman.

The Saoirse – sailing under the US flag but carrying mostly Irish nationals – has 15 passengers on board, none of whom were journalists.

Heap told Al Jazeera that the activists chose to leave from Fethiye because of the strained relations between Turkey and Israel.

"The Turkish government has been creating more distance from Israel diplomatically and we know there is support from Turkish society for what we are doing.

"Our judgment was that the Turkish state would not interfere with us if we didn’t make too much of a public issue of our plan to depart from there," Heap told Al Jazeera.
(Al Jazeera and Agencies)

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