JERUSALEM – The Israeli navy intercepted and boarded a freighter trying to break the blockade of Gaza on Thursday and ordered it to make for Israel’s nearest Mediterranean port, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said.
“The navy boarded the vessel, stopped it and it is now bringing it to Ashdod,” Barak said in broadcast remarks.
Two gunboats were visible about a mile offshore from Gaza city, escorting the ship northwards. It appeared to be the first attempt to reach Gaza by a foreign vessel since Israel ended a 22-day offensive in the Gaza Strip two weeks ago.
Doha-based Al-Jazeera television quoted a correspondent aboard the vessel as saying the Israeli navy had fired shots.
“They are opening fire toward the vessel … there are Israeli soldiers who have actually boarded the vessel,” said Salam Khoder.
“Three of them are pointing their weapons at us … They are beating those on the vessel, they are beating and kicking us,” Khoder said.
Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora condemned the action.
“Those who commit massacres against innocent civilians in Lebanon and Gaza will not stop themselves from assaulting, in front of the world, a ship carrying humanitarian supplies,” he said. “I express my utmost condemnation for this blatant attack.”
An Israeli army spokesman said no gunfire was used in taking control of the vessel and most of the 20 passengers aboard were from media organizations.
The freighter, registered in the West African state of Togo, left Lebanon and docked in Cyprus before sailing for Gaza. The captain was told repeatedly that he would not be allowed to take it into Gaza waters, the army spokesman said.
Confronted Wednesday by Israeli navy vessels, the ship’s captain said he was changing course for the Egyptian port of El Arish on the Mediterranean coast, 45 km (30 miles) west of the Gaza-Egypt border.
An Egyptian official said the ship requested permission to dock and the captain was “told to stop in the waiting area until measures are taken to bring it in, since the boat has had no previous dealings with the port.”
But early Thursday, the ship turned and started heading back toward Gaza, Israel said.
“It entered Gaza territorial waters in a suspicious way,” said the army spokesman. “They were not acting in accordance with regular naval procedures which raised suspicion they may be smuggling something or endangering Israeli security.”
Al-Jazeera said the ship, Lebanese Brotherhood, was carrying humanitarian aid from Lebanese and Arab charities destined for those made homeless by Israel’s devastating offensive.
The shipment was organized by the Palestinian National Committee Against the Siege in cooperation with the U.S.-based Free Gaza Movement.
There have been several attempts to break the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip over the past months by sympathizers of Gaza’s 1.5 million Palestinians. Some boats with peace activists were allowed to dock, others were warned off.
Israel maintains tight control of Gaza’s access to the outside world, insisting it will not permit cash, steel or any other materials that could be used by Hamas Islamists in control of the Gaza Strip to make weapons for use against Israelis.