Israel detains ship seeking to break its Gaza blockade

JERUSALEM (AFP) - Israel's navy boarded and took over an activist vessel seeking to break its Gaza blockade and was escorting it to port on Monday in an operation that did not use force, the military said.

A flotilla of four boats carrying pro-Palestinian activists had been seeking to reach Gaza to highlight the Israeli blockade of the territory, with the attempt coming five years after a similar bid ended in a deadly raid.

Three of the boats were said to have turned back while a fourth, the Marianne of Gothenburg, was boarded by the Israeli navy and was being escorted to an Israeli port.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lauded the operation insisting his government was right to take action against Hamas, the Islamist movement that rules Gaza. "In accordance with international law, the Israeli navy advised the vessel several times to change course," the military said in a statement. "Following their refusal the navy visited and searched the vessel in international waters in order to prevent their intended breach of the maritime blockade of the Gaza Strip.

"The forces have reported that use of force was unnecessary, and that the process was uneventful," it added. "The vessel is currently being escorted to Ashdod port and is expected to arrive within 12-24 hours."

A military spokeswoman confirmed to AFP that the vessel was the Swedish-flagged Marianne of Gothenburg, part of the so-called Freedom Flotilla III.

Among the passengers on the four vessels were Arab-Israeli lawmaker Basel Ghattas, Tunisia's former president Moncef Marzouki and at least one European lawmaker.

The other three ships had changed their course and were "heading back to their ports of origin," according to a statement by "Canadian Boat to Gaza", issued by the activists before the Israeli navy commandeered the Marianne.

"We once again call on the government of Israel to finally lift the blockade on Gaza," the statement read. "Our destination remains the conscience of humanity."

Mr Netanyahu dismissed the organiser's goals.

"This flotilla is nothing but a demonstration of hypocrisy and lies that is only assisting the Hamas terrorist organisation and ignores all of the horrors in our region," he said in a statement.

"Preventing entry by sea was done in accordance with international law and even received backing from a committee of the UN secretary-general."

Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon said the flotilla "wasn't humanitarian and didn't seek to help anyone", adding that "the participants were seeking to continue the campaign to delegitimise Israel".

Israel imposed its blockade on Gaza in 2006 after Hamas captured an Israeli soldier, and tightened it a year later when the Islamist movement consolidated control of the territory.

A number of flotillas had reached Gaza prior to May 2010, when 10 Turkish activists aboard the Mavi Marmara were killed in an Israeli raid on the six-ship flotilla.

Since then, several ships manned by pro-Palestinian activists have tried to reach the shores of Gaza, but they have all been repelled by the Israeli navy.

The latest attempt comes with the Palestinian territory yet to begin the reconstruction of thousands of homes destroyed during last summer's 50-day conflict between Hamas and Israel.

Fingers have been pointed at both Israel and a lack of support from international donors.