ISRAEL INTERCEPTS GAZA-BOUND BOAT CARRYING PRO-PALESTINIAN ACTIVISTS
By Diaa Hadid
October 20, 2012
JERUSALEM -- Israeli troops on Saturday commandeered a Gaza-bound ship that tried to break through Israel's blockade of the Hamas-ruled seaside strip, the military said. European lawmakers and other pro-Palestinian activists aboard did not resist, and the Finnish-flagged vessel was diverted to an Israeli port.
The trip by the ship, Estelle, 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.
Hamas called for more attempts to break the sea blockade.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a statement praising the military for enforcing the blockade, said there "is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza" and accused the activists of trying to "to provoke and slander Israel's name."
"If human rights were really important to these activists they would have sailed for Syria. We will continue to protect our borders," he said.
Six Israeli naval vessels stopped the Estelle when it was about thirty 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. The boat arrived at the port Saturday night and will be inspected to see what is on board, the Israeli military said.
The activists will be questioned by immigration officials and then deported to their home countries within 72 hours, said Sabine Hadad, spokeswoman for Israel's Interior Ministry.
The Swedish-owned Estelle left Naples, Italy, on Oct. 7 with about thirty people from eight countries, including lawmakers from Norway, Sweden, Greece, and Spain, as well as Israeli activists and a 79-year-old former legislator from Canada.
Israeli military spokeswoman Lt. Avital Leibovich accused the activists of staging a provocation.
"We have this blockade because there are constant smuggling attempts of weapons, munitions that eventually reach the hands of terror organizations inside Gaza," she said.
Over the past decade, Gaza militants have fired thousands of rockets and mortar rounds toward Israeli border towns.
Although Hamas and Israel have maintained an unwritten truce for more than two years, violence occasionally flares in the area. Most recently, an Israeli strike on a prominent al-Qaida-inspired jihadi prompted two days of tit-for-tat rocket fire and strikes last week.
Strand, a spokeswoman for the activists, said the takeover of the Estelle by Israeli forces was a "demonstration of ruthlessness."
The ship was carrying cement, basketballs, and musical instruments, Strand said. It was emblazoned with "Ship to Gaza" on one side, and also flew the colorful red, green, black, and white Palestinian flag.
Israel, aided by Egypt, closed Gaza's borders after Hamas seized control and drove out forces loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas more than five years ago. Israel eased its restrictions after its raid of a Turkish-led blockade-busting flotilla in 2010 left nine activists dead and sparked international condemnation.
Still, Israel continues to block sea access to Gaza and severely restricts its ability to export goods and import raw materials.
Activists say the blockade amounts to collective punishment of Gaza's 1.6 million residents, denying them the chance to trade and travel freely. Neighboring Egypt continues to impose restrictions at its passenger crossing with Gaza.
The blockade has deepened the hardships in Gaza, where three in four residents rely on U.N. food aid to get by, according to U.N. figures.
"It's hard to imagine what threat one sailboat, loaded with humanitarian supplies and a small number of people, could do to" Israel's mighty military, said Eva Manly, the wife of former Canadian parliamentarian James Manly. She said she lost contact with her 79-year-old husband early Saturday.
Israeli Defense Ministry spokesman Joshua Hantman said the goods onboard would be checked before entering Gaza through the Israeli-controlled land crossing, Kerem Shalom. He said Israel allows some 50,000 tons of goods into Gaza every week. Gaza residents also use dozens of smuggling tunnels linked to neighboring Egypt to bring in contraband goods, particularly construction materials.
Hantman said militants have tried in the past to smuggle weapons into Gaza by sea. In 2011, a vessel carrying 50 tons of weaponry sought to reach Gaza, while in 2009, a boat tried to bring in some 500 tons of weapons, he said.
A Hamas spokesman condemned Israel's actions as "piracy."
"This confirms that the (Israeli) occupation is maintaining its control and isolation of Gaza. There must be more flotillas of solidarity activists to Gaza," said Fawzi Barhoum.
--Associated Press writers Ibrahim Barzak in Gaza City and Karl Ritter in Stockholm contributed to this report.
ISRAELI NAVY SEIZES GAZA-BOUND SHIP 'ESTELLE'
By Yaakov Lappin
** Navy seizes Finnish-flagged ship carrying 30 pro-Palestinian activists after it refused to change course, tows it to Ashdod **
October 20, 2012
The Navy on Saturday took control of a Swedish ship sailing under a Finnish flag, that carried pro-Palestinian activists towards Gaza, and towed the vessel to Ashdod instead.
Despite earlier claims by activists that they were bringing humanitarian supplies to Gaza, no such items were immediately found on board, the IDF said. But it added that it was still unloading the ship’s cargo.
Mikael Lofgren, a spokesman for the Swedish group Ship to Gaza that organized the voyage, told the *Jerusalem Post* that the vessel carried 41 pounds of cement, musical instruments, theatrical equipment, wheel chairs, children’s books, and 600 soccer balls.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the IDF operation to enforce Israel's naval blockade on the Gaza Strip, which he said was in keeping with international law.
"Even the people who were on the ship know that there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Their entire objective was to create a provocation and blacken Israel's name. If human rights were really important to these activists, they would sail to Syria,” he said.
“We will continue to take strong and determined action to defend our borders," Netanyahu said.
The 53-meter ship first set sail in mid-June in the north of Sweden with some 20 activists, Lofgren said.
It then spent close to three months traveling around Europe, he said. It stopped in 20 ports, including nine in Sweden, before heading to Gaza on Oct. 7, he said.
A few days ago, ten additional activists took a speed boat from Greece and boarded the ship on the open sea, Lofgren and Adam Keller of Gush Shalom said.
The new group included three Israelis Elik Elhanan, Reut Mor, and Yonathan Shapira, according to Keller. Five parliament members from Sweden, Norway, Spain and Greece also boarded the Estelle with them, Keller said.
Israel on Friday warned the activists in a message through the Finnish Foreign Ministry that they would be taken into custody and possibly prosecuted if they did not turn the vessel around, Keller said.
According to the IDF the ship was also invited to head to Ashdod instead, with a pledge that its cargo would be transferred to Gaza via a land crossing.
But the activists refused all Israeli requests to divert their course, and had declared that their intention was to violate Israel's naval blockade on the Gaza Strip, the IDF said.
"When those onboard made it clear they had no intention of cooperating or accepting the invitation to arrive at Ashdod Port, it was decided to take control of the ship and bring it to Ashdod," the IDF said.
Lofgren said he last spoke with the ship around 10:15 a.m. Central European Time, when he had a conversation with an Israeli on board, Dror Feiler.
“He told me that he saw five or six military vessels coming closer to the Estelle. Shortly after that we had a break [in the line]. I phoned him again. He said, now they are boarding. He saw some soldiers with masks and on their faces coming up on the sides of the Estelle. Then the satellite connection went off. Since then we have not had any contact with anyone on the ship,” Lofgren said.
Navy commandos took over the Estelle ship without the use of force, and offered the activists food and water, the IDF added. The commandos also ensured that all of the activists were in good health, the IDF said.
The activists will be handed over to the Israel Police and the Interior Ministry, which is expected to begin deportation proceedings against foreign nationals.
The IDF Spokesman stressed that anyone seeking to pass on humanitarian aid to Gaza is able to do so legally at any time via land crossings to Gaza in coordination with Israel.
But Lofgren said that goods and people should be able to travel freely in and out of Gaza, including by sea.
While there could be security reasons to impose a naval blockade on the area, Lofgren said, obviously in this case, a blockade has not worked given that military weapons have been smuggled into Gaza.
The only success of the blockade so far, he said, “is to increase suspicion and bitterness on both sides.”
“I must say that I find this kind of military effort to stop the ship strange,” Lofgren said. He noted that he had traveled thousands of miles and that there had been many options to inspect the ship to ensure that there were no weapons on board.
The group, even offered to have international inspectors, such as from the U.N., board the ship to inspect it, Lofgren said.
Meanwhile, Egypt has lifted all restrictions on the passage of construction material to Gaza through the Gaza-Egypt border, Israel Radio reported on Saturday.
In July 2011, the U.N. Palmer Commission published a report on the IDF's interception of the Turkish flotilla, and ruled that Israel's security blockade on Gaza "is both legal and appropriate."
Since 2001, Palestinian terror groups in Gaza have fired over 10,000 rockets at southern Israeli cities, towns, and villages, leading Israel to impose the blockade.
--Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.
ISRAEL SEIZES ACTIVIST SHIP ON ROUTE TO GAZA STRIP
By Jodi Rudoren
New York Times
October 20, 2012
JERUSALEM -- The Israeli Navy on Saturday boarded a European ship en route to the Gaza Strip that was trying to break Israel’s maritime blockade against the Hamas-controlled region.
The passengers on the ship, the Estelle, included five members of European parliaments and a former Canadian lawmaker, according to those involved in the campaign.
An Israeli military spokesman said that the ship had been seized without incident and taken to the port of Ashdod, in southern Israel, and that those on board would be turned over to the police.
A statement from an organization affiliated with the mission said that late Saturday morning, “Israeli warships surrounded the Estelle, and the assault on the peaceful ship started.” David Heap, an activist connected to the movement who was attending a conference in Gaza, said he had no information about what had happened aboard the Estelle as it was intercepted.
“The last contact we have from our people on board was that they were going to be boarded,” Mr. Heap said. “We have no confirmation from them of how they are, and we may not for some time hear directly from them.”
Israel imposed a naval blockade on Gaza in early 2009, saying it was needed to prevent the smuggling of weapons to the Palestinian enclave, which is governed by the Islamic militant group Hamas. Israeli officials were also worried about weapons being smuggled to other militant groups.
Mr. Heap said the Estelle was the latest of more than a dozen ships that had tried to break the blockade since 2010, when Israeli commandos killed nine pro-Palestinian activists after encountering resistance during a raid on a six-ship flotilla led by the Turkish vessel the Mavi Marmara.
After the Mavi Marmara raid, a United Nations panel found that Israel’s naval blockade was “legitimate self-defense and that Israel’s decision to intercept the flotilla was indeed legal under international law.” Activists have disputed the panel’s conclusion.
The episode led to some relaxing of the restrictions on imports to Gaza but also caused a deep rift in relations between Israel and Turkey. A spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces, Eytan Buchman, said the Estelle was the third such ship the military had boarded in two years.
Among other things, the Estelle was carrying an anchor for a project called “Gaza’s Ark,” for which activists are building a boat intended to break the limits on exports. “We carry humanitarian supplies,” Jim Manly, the former member of the Canadian Parliament who was on board the ship, said in a statement posted online last week. “Our only ‘dangerous cargo’ is a cargo of hope.”
The Israeli statement said that the boarding “was carried out in accordance with international law” and after repeated attempts to deter the ship (through direct contact with passengers and diplomatic channels) were unsuccessful. Mr. Buchman said offers were made to transfer the cargo on the Estelle to Gaza through Ashdod.
“It should be stressed that any organization or state who wishes to transfer supplies or aid to the Gaza Strip can do so via the existing land crossings and in coordination with Israeli authorities,” the statement said.
--Fares Akram contributed reporting from the Gaza Strip.
NAVY SEIZES GAZA-BOUND FINNISH SHIP
By Yoav Zitun
October 20, 2012
Israeli Navy soldiers seized control of the Gaza-bound ship Estelle, which was seeking to breach Israel's naval blockade on Gaza, the army's Spokesperson's Unit reported at around 11:40 a.m. on Saturday.
The rerouted vessel arrived in the Ashdod port shortly after 9:00 p.m. An initial search did not find any humanitarian aid supplies aboard the ship, the IDF said.
The raid was conducted by commandoes from the élite Shayatet-13 unit after Navy missile ships surrounded the Estelle.
"When the (ship's) passengers made it clear that they would not cooperate or accept the invitation to sail to the Ashdod Port, it was decided to seize the vessel and lead it to the Ashdod Port," the army said in a statement.
"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."
The army added that once the ship reaches Ashdod the passengers will be handed over to police and immigration authorities.
3 ISRAELIS ABOARD SHIP
According to the Gush Shalom organization, three Israeli citizens were aboard the Estelle. The pro-Palestinian activists -- Elik Elhanan, Reut Mor, and Yonatan Shapira -- were brought to the ship on a motorboat that arrived from Greece.
"I want to say that we are here to give a message of solidarity to the people of Gaza," Mor was quoted by CNN as saying from aboard the ship.
"The siege is inhuman and immoral, and this is the reason -- as non-violent peaceful activists -- (we) decide(d) to risk ourselves and break the siege."
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lauded the IDF's operation and blasted the ship's passengers.
"Even the people aboard the ship know that there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza, and that their entire goal is to provoke and slander Israel. If these activists really cared about human rights, they would have sailed to Syria.
"We will continue protecting our borders with might and determination," he added.
Victoria Strand, a Stockholm-based spokeswoman for the campaign, told AFP earlier that the Estelle had "come under attack" shortly after being approached by Israeli vessels.
Before the ship was taken over, former Israeli national Dror Feiler, who took part in the sail, was quoted by pro-Palestinian media outlets as saying that the ship was "attacked at 10:15 (a.m.)." According to him, six Israeli vessels surrounded the Estelle and masked soldiers attempted to board it. He claimed the attempt to intercept the ship was conducted in international waters.
The 53-meter vessel is carrying two olive trees, 41 tons of cement, books, toys, and medical equipment.
The organizers of the "Ship to Gaza Sweden" campaign said the Estelle is carrying about 30 people, including parliament members from Sweden, Norway, Greece, and Spain.
IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz has instructed the military Advocate General, Maj.-Gen. Danny Efroni, to explore legal options against the activists.
A senior Defense Ministry official said Israel "has a right to operate at sea to prevent the smuggling of arms to terror organizations."
He called the Estelle passengers "provocateurs who are drive by hatred for Israel."
The official stressed that "there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza. More than 1,500 trucks carrying tons of goods enter Gaza each week through the land crossings.
The IDF stressed that the preparations to intercept the ship were conducted only after diplomatic efforts to stop the sail had failed.
The army said this week that the activists want to create a provocation and draw international media attention. Therefore, the army said, it plans to document the raid on the ship from several angles.
The Estelle is the latest in a series of activist-manned boats challenging Israel's blockade on Gaza, imposed after the terror group Hamas seized power of the coastal sliver in 2007. It left Naples, Italy, on Oct. 7.
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