Israeli troops on Saturday commandeered a Gaza-bound ship that tried to break through Israel's blockade of the Hamas-ruled seaside strip, the military said. European lawmakers and other pro-Palestinian activists aboard did not resist, and the Finnish-flagged vessel was diverted to an Israeli port.
The voyage by the ship, Estelle, marked the latest challenge to the air, land and sea embargo of Gaza that Israel imposed after the Islamic militant Hamas group seized the territory in 2007. Israeli officials say they need to enforce the blockade to prevent weapons smuggling.
Hamas called for more attempts to break the sea blockade.
Six Israeli naval vessels stopped the Estelle when it was about 30 nautical miles from Gaza, and masked soldiers boarded the ship and ordered it to sail to Israel's Ashdod port, said Victoria Strand, a spokeswoman for the activists.
The Swedish-owned Estelle left Naples, Italy, on Oct. 7 with about 30 people from eight countries, including lawmakers from Norway, Sweden, Greece and Spain, as well as Israeli activists and Jim Manly, 79, a former Canadian member of Parliament.
"It's hard to imagine what threat one sailboat, loaded with humanitarian supplies and a small number of people, could do to" Israel's mighty military, said Manly's wife, Eva. She said she lost contact with her husband early Saturday.
Israeli military spokeswoman Lieut. Avital Leibovich accused the activists of staging a provocation.
"We have this blockade because there are constant smuggling attempts of weapons, munitions that eventually reach the hands of terror organizations inside Gaza," she said.
Over the past decade, Gaza militants have fired thousands of rockets and mortar rounds toward Israeli border towns.
Although Hamas and Israel have maintained an unwritten truce for more than two years, violence occasionally flares in the area.
Most recently, an Israeli strike on a prominent al-Qaeda-inspired jihadi prompted two days of tit-for-tat rocket fire and strikes last week.
Strand, a spokeswoman for the activists, said the takeover of the Estelle by Israeli forces was a "demonstration of ruthlessness."
The ship was carrying cement, basketballs and musical instruments, Strand said. It was emblazoned with "Ship to Gaza" on one side, and also flew the colourful red, green, black and white Palestinian flag.
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