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GAZA: Lebanon aid boat held by Israel navy

February 5, 2009 |  9:10 am

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Another attempt to break the Israeli blockade imposed on Gaza was thwarted by the Israeli navy.

A Lebanese ship bound for Gaza and reportedly carrying 60 tons of medical and food supplies to Palestinians was forcefully towed to an Israeli port.

A reporter from the Arab satellite TV channel Al Jazeera said that Israeli soldiers shot at the ship, called the Brotherhood Boat, before allegedly boarding it and physically abusing its passengers, charges Israel denied.

The ship was reportedly transporting Muslim and Christian religious figures in addition to peace activists in a symbolic gesture against the continued clampdown on  Gaza.

“Israeli soldiers are pointing their rifles at us.... They are beating up the passengers on the ship,” the reporter said, seemingly shaken, via telephone live on television earlier today.

Contacts with the journalist were abruptly interrupted in the middle of her call.

Israeli authorities denied firing gunshots. They said that the ship, which set sail from northern Lebanon on Tuesday, was taken to the port of Ashdod.

Al Jazeera quoted unnamed Israeli military officials saying that no arms were found on the ship. The fate of the 18 passengers was not immediately clear. The station said the passengers might be returned to Lebanon via the land border with Israel. It said that Israeli authorities would interrogate some of the people on the ship.

One of the passengers was the controversial 86-year-old Greek Catholic priest Hillarion Capucci, who  was convicted in 1974 by an Israeli court for using his status as an archbishop in Jerusalem to smuggle arms to Palestinian militants. He was later released from jail by the intervention of the Vatican and deported.

The Israeli military accused the ship’s captain of trying to slip past its navy after agreeing to sail to Egypt instead.

The owner of the blue-and-white boat, Mohamad Youssef, said from Beirut that Israeli authorities opened fire on the ship and damaged its equipment.

“Contacts with the ship were cut ... the crew and the passengers were beaten savagely,” Youssef said in a telephone interview with Al Jazeera.

He said that the cargo on board consisted of medicine, food and toys. He said there were no militants on board.

Lebanese officials called the incident a “blatant attack” and said that they would complain to international instances.

International human rights organizations have accused Israel of preventing aid from reaching Gaza since the end of its offensive against Hamas.

During its conflict with the Palestinian militant group Hamas earlier this month, Israel blocked aid boats from reaching Gaza and delivering medical and food supplies.

-- Raed Rafei in Beirut

Photo: A Lebanese ship is seen docked next to an Israeli naval ship in the southern Israeli city of Ashdod today. The Israeli navy today  intercepted a ship delivering 60 tons of supplies from Lebanon to the Gaza Strip and said it was towing the vessel into an Israeli port. The ship set sail from the Lebanese port of Tripoli on Tuesday in a bid to defy Israel's blockade of Gaza. Credit: Associated Press / Sebastian Scheiner

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