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Israeli police block boat bound for Gaza

Police block an Israeli protest boat, carrying activists and aid supplies, from trying to break through Israel's naval blockade to the Gaza Strip.

An Israeli Arab boy is seen at the port in Jaffa, near Tel Aviv, Israel, on Dec 7 2008.
An Israeli Arab boy is seen at the port in Jaffa, near Tel Aviv, Israel, on Dec 7 2008.

JERUSALEM // Police blocked an Israeli protest boat, carrying activists and aid supplies, from trying to break through Israel's naval blockade to the Gaza Strip today. The boat was set to depart from the small port of Jaffa, near Tel Aviv. It is the latest in a series of similar attempts to attract attention to Israel's sanctions against Gaza. The journey was organised by Israeli Arab political parties and not-for-profit groups. Israeli Arab lawmakers and other activists are said to have been among the 100 passengers. As well as basic food supplies and medicine, the cargo includes toys and sweets for the upcoming Muslim festival, according to Zahi Nujeidat, a spokesman for Israel's Islamic Movement, one of the groups behind the trip.

Micky Rosenfeld, a police spokesman, said officers contacted the boat's owner and warned him that sailing to Gaza would be a violation of Israeli law. The law forbids Israeli citizens from entering Gaza, fearing that they would be in danger and that the government would be responsible for their safety. For the same reason, police arrested three people with a truckload of goods bound for the boat, Mr Rosenfeld said.

Since the summer, international activists have made three successful boat trips from Cyprus to Gaza. Israel's navy ignored those trips, but turned away a Libyan vessel last week. Sunday's attempt was to have been the first attempt by an Israeli boat. Israel and Egypt imposed a blockade on Gaza after Hamas seized power in June 2007. Israel loosened its sanctions as part of a truce with Hamas that began nearly six months ago, but sealed the territory again after violence resumed in early November. Israel says it will open the crossings after Gaza militants halt their near-daily rocket fire at Israeli towns and at the border crossings where goods enter the territory.

The military says one rocket and three mortar shells hit Israel today. There were no injuries reported. Militants fired seven rockets and mortars into Israel yesterday. The sanctions have deepened the hardship for Gaza's largely impoverished population of 1.4 million, though some goods and fuel continue to enter the territory through smuggling tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border. Speaking ahead of a meeting of the Israeli Cabinet today, the prime minister, Ehud Olmert, said Israel "has no intention of accepting" the ongoing fire, indicating Israel could abandon the truce and strike harder at militants in Gaza. But he did not announce any concrete steps.

"Over the last few days I met with the defence minister, and we agreed that we will formulate Israel's position based on guaranteeing that this situation will not continue," Mr Olmert said. In a move meant to bolster Hamas' moderate rival, the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, the Israeli government gave its final approval to the release of 230 Palestinian prisoners from groups allied with Abbas' Fatah movement, according to a government statement. Spokesman David Baker said the release, timed to coincide with the Muslim festival of Eid al Adha, would take place later this week.

* AP