x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Israelis halt and board two protest boats bound for Gaza

Israeli forces board the boats after repeated calls for them to turn around are ignored, the military said. No one was hurt during the operation.

JERUSALEM // Israel's navy boarded two protest boats trying to break the blockade of the Gaza Strip yesterday.

They were towed to an Israeli port just north of the Palestinian Territories, officials said.

Forces boarded the boats after repeated calls for them to turn around were ignored, the military said, adding that the action was peaceful and no one was hurt.

It was the latest attempt by pro-Palestinian activists heading for Gaza by boat to draw attention to a five-year blockade of the area that critics claim amounts to collective punishment of its residents.

Israel said its naval blockade was vital in preventing weapons from reaching groups such as Hamas, the Iranian-backed militants who rule the Gaza Strip.

Once the vessels reached the port of Ashdod, the activists would be questioned by police and immigration officials then sent back to their home countries as soon as possible, said an Israeli police spokesman, Micky Rosenfeld.

There were 27 activists from nine different countries, including the US and Ireland, aboard the boats.

In Gaza, activist Amjad Shawwa called for the release of those held, who "were on a civil trip to Gaza to help the Palestinians".

Israel sees attempts to break the sea blockade as provocations and publicity stunts. It said the amount of aid in the small boats used by activists is insignificant, as Israel transfers aid to Gaza daily.

Israel's navy has intercepted similar protest ships in the past.

Last year, Israeli troops killed nine Turkish pro-Palestinian activists when they resisted an Israeli operation to halt a similar flotilla.

Each side blamed the other for the violence.

* Associated Press