REPORTING FROM JERUSALEM -- Israel’s navy intercepted a pro-Palestinian protest flotilla Friday as the vessels attempted to break a sea blockade around the Gaza Strip, the third such attempt in less than two years.
Israeli officials said the takeover of two boats carrying 27 activists, journalists and crew members occurred without the kind of violent clash seen in May 2010, when nine Turkish activists, including one with dual U.S. citizenship, were shot and killed as they resisted takeover by Israeli commandos.
The latest ships, the Canadian-owned Tahrir and Irish-owned Saoirse, were escorted to the Israeli port of Ashdod, where crew and passengers were expected to be detained for questioning.
Activists on board the ships could not be reached by telephone. Israel routinely jams cellular and satellite signals during such takeovers.
“The situation in Gaza has not changed, and as a result, the efforts of activists have not changed,” said Felice Gelman, a spokeswoman for Freedom Waves to Gaza, a coalition of several advocacy groups behind the flotilla. “Israel has not delivered on its pledge to ease the siege, so our efforts will continue.”
Israel defended its blockade as legal, saying that if it allowed free access into Gaza, militants there would import weapons and fighters. After the deadly 2010 clash, Israel agreed to ease restrictions on most food and household items allowed into Gaza. But the export of Gaza-produced goods and the import of construction materials is still limited or banned.
Israeli officials said the need for the blockade was underscored last week when a southern Israeli man was killed in a rocket attack by Gaza militants. Ten Palestinian militants were also killed in Israeli airstrikes over the past week. A cease-fire brokered by Egypt ended the attacks.
The latest flotilla embarked from Turkey last week. The two boats carried passengers from the United States, Canada, Ireland, Australia and the West Bank. Among the activists is Washington state resident Kit Kittredge, a representative of the antiwar advocacy group Code Pink.
On Thursday, the U.S. State Department urged American citizens to not take part in attempts to break Israel’s blockade and warned they could face civil or criminal penalties.
Unlike previous flotillas, organizers kept their plans secret, saying they feared Israel would attempt to sabotage their vessels or launch diplomatic efforts to block them.
-- Edmund Sanders
Photo: Protesters near the United Nations offices in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Thursday call for an end to the Israeli siege of the Gaza Strip. Credit: Abbas Momani / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images