The Israeli navy has intercepted a Swedish vessel leading a four-ship flotilla carrying activists who intended to breach a naval blockade of the Gaza Strip. Israel says no violence occurred during the incident.
Israeli forces boarded the Swedish ship in international waters without any violence and redirected it to an Israeli port, the military said in a statement on Monday.
The statement said that "after exhausting all diplomatic channels, the Israeli government ordered the Israeli navy to redirect the vessel in order to prevent a breach of the naval blockade" of Gaza.
The three other ships making up the flotilla reportedly turned back before encountering the Israeli navy.
Interior Ministry spokeswoman Sabine Haddad said that the vessel was due to reach port late on Monday, after which the foreign activists on board would be questioned and sent home. She said deporting them could take a few days, depending on available flights.
The activist group organizing the operation, the Freedom Flotilla group, said in a Twitter post that the ship was currently en route to the port of Ashdod.
'Protests to continue'
The activists said that the ship, the "Marianne of Gothenburg," was carrying about 20 journalists and politicians, including Israeli Arab lawmaker Basel Ghattas, former Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki and Ana Maria Miranda Paz, a European Parliament member from Spain.
Petros Stergiou, a spokesman for the flotilla, said in Athens that the group would keep up its protests until Israel lifted its blockade of Gaza, imposed in 2007 after Hamas militants took power in the Palestinian enclave.
"Once again, the Israeli state commits an act of state piracy in the Mediterranean Sea," he said. "The government continues this policy of non-tolerance, which means that it will continue to enforce the collective punishment against the 1.8 million people in Gaza."
An Israeli navy raid on another protest flotilla bound for Gaza in 2010 left nine Turkish pro-Palestinian activists dead in an incident that aroused international criticism of Israel and severely damaged the country's previously close ties with Turkey.
Israel says the blockade is necessary to prevent weapons from entering the territory, from which Islamic militants have fired thousands of rockets toward the Jewish state. But the international community, including the United Nations, has repeatedly called for a lifting of the blockade, which severely restricts Palestinian movement and trade in the coastal strip, still devastated from last summer's war with Israel.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, however, again defended the blockade on Monday, saying it was in accordance with international law.
"This flotilla is nothing but a demonstration of hypocrisy and lies that is only assisting the Hamas terrorist organization and ignores all of the horrors in our region," he said. "We are not prepared to accept the entry of war material to the terrorist organizations in Gaza as has been done by sea in the past."
Activists said the boats had loaded a cargo of photovoltaic panels and medical equipment for the impoverished territory.
tj/msh (AP, Reuters)