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Israel Seizes Pro-Palestinian Activist Ship off Gaza

An Israeli military naval ship patrols inside the port of Ashdod, in the Mediterranean Sea, Israel, March 15, 2011.

There was drama on the high seas Saturday as a ship challenged Israel’s naval blockade on the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.

A Swedish owned ship, the Finnish-flagged Estelle, carrying 30 pro-Palestinian activists from eight countries tried to break Israel’s naval blockade on Gaza. But the vessel was intercepted by the Israeli Navy about 60 kilometers off the Gaza coast, and it was boarded by commandos.

Victoria Strand is a Sweden-based spokeswoman for the ship. “They were boarded by masked and armed soldiers, and my thoughts about this is it’s an act of piracy because they are boarded on international waters and I find this a very violent action," she said.

The Israeli military says the commandos who boarded the ship did not meet any resistance and no one was hurt. Army spokeswoman Avital Liebowitz said the boat was contacted by radio and asked to change course.

“When they refused to do this several times, we had to board the vessel. The boarding was done peacefully; we offered food and drinks to the passengers," he said.

Liebowitz says the blockade is necessary because Gaza is ruled by Hamas, a Palestinian militant group that frequently fires rockets and mortars across the border at Israel.

“So basically it’s a measure of defense. We can’t allow a situation in which strategic kinds of weapons reach terror organizations, such as Hamas in Gaza for instance, and then they’re used against our civilians," he said.

The activists say their mission was peaceful and they were simply bringing civilian aid to the Palestinians, such as cement, basketballs and musical instruments. Strand, the spokeswoman for the ship, says Israel has no right to stop cargo like that.

“We don’t consider the blockade as being legal, that’s number one, and secondly the blockade is very, very inhuman. The blockade is now in its sixth year and the siege must end," she said.

The ship was towed to the Israeli port of Ashdod near Gaza, and Israel says the activists will be deported.