20 Oct 2012

Israel intercepts Gaza-bound ship carrying European MPs

Israeli troops take control of a boat carrying pro-Palestinian MPs and activists who are trying to pass through its naval blockade on the Gaza Strip.

Israeli troops board a boat carrying pro-Palestinian MPs and activists seeking to run its naval blockade on the Gaza Strip and reach the enclave by sea.

The Israeli military said the operation ended peacefully after activists tried to breach Israel’s tight maritime embargo on Gaza which prohibits all naval traffic in and out of the Palestinian coastal territory.

“Israeli navy soldiers boarded (the MV) Estelle, a vessel which was en route to the Gaza Strip,” the military said in a statement.

“There was no violence,” an Israeli military spokeswoman told AFP, and no resistance. The 53-metre (174-foot) Finnish-flagged vessel was being led to Ashdod port in southern Israel.

Latest challenge

Estelle’s voyage marked the latest challenge to the air, land and sea embargo of Gaza that Israel imposed after the Islamic militant Hamas group seized the territory in 2007. Israeli officials say they need to enforce the blockade to prevent weapons smuggling.

Seventeen passengers including five European parliamentarians and a former Canadian lawmaker are on the ship, which is also ferrying humanitarian aid and 30 doves, which were to be released on arrival in Gaza.

The announcement came shortly after organisers told AFP that the ship had “come under attack” after being approached by navy vessels some 38 nautical miles off the Gaza coast.

‘Demonstration of ruthlessness’

Six Israeli naval vessels stopped the Estelle when it was about 30 nautical miles from Gaza, and masked soldiers boarder the ship and ordered it to sail to Israel’s Ashdod port, said Victoria Strand, a spokeswoman for the activists. She called the takeover of the Estelle by Israeli forces a “demonstration of ruthlessness”.

On arrival at Ashdod, the ship’s passengers were to be put in police custody and moved to immigration for immediate deportation.

“The occupation’s attack on the Estelle and its capture of the activists on board is an act of piracy and a crime against humanity,” said Sami Abu Zuhri, spokesman for Gaza‘s Hamas rulers.

The move was also denounced by Gisha, an Israeli NGO which campaigns for Palestinian freedom of movement and trade.

Among those on board are parliamentarians Ricardo Sixto Iglesias from Spain, Sven Britton from Sweden, Aksel Hagen of Norway, and Vangelis Diamandopoulos and Dimitris Kodelas, both from Greece. Former Canadian lawmaker Jim Manly is also on board.

“The Navy force operated as planned to guarantee the safety of the soldiers and passengers on the deck. The soldiers did not use force while seizing the ship, and gave the activists food and water,” the IDF told the Jerusalem Post.