The Israeli navy boarded a yacht in the Mediterranean on Tuesday to prevent a small group of Jewish activists sailing to Gaza to protest against Israel's blockade of the Palestinian enclave.

Israel's Gaza policies came under scrutiny in May after its marines killed nine Turkish activists in boarding one ship in a flotilla of six vessels trying to reach the Palestinian enclave. The boarding occurred in international waters at night.

A military statement on Tuesday said the catamaran Irene, flying the Union Jack, was taken over without incident well off the Gaza Strip, within the 20-mile nautical zone that Israel defines as Gaza waters.

Navy video shot from above showed an open zephyr boat closing alongside the catamaran and marines clambering aboard.

Reuters Television later filmed the little yacht sailing for the port of Ashdod under its own power, led by a small naval escort vessel.

The group of nine activists -- from Israel, Britain, Germany and the United States -- set sail from Cyprus on Sunday, intent on defying the Israeli blockade of Gaza and highlighting the suffering of 1.5 million Palestinians who live in the territory.

"Israel doesn't have moral borders," said activist Reuven Moskovitz before setting sail from Cyprus on Sunday. The Holocaust survivor, 82, said he was taking part "because I am a survivor. When I was in a ghetto and almost died I hoped there would be human beings who would show compassion and help."

The Irene's campaign has attracted relatively little international attention, and Israel dismissed it as a provocative stunt wasteful of time and resources.


Israel Defense Forces' (IDF) chief spokesman Avi Benayahu deplored the fact that "naval forces and fighters are being diverted from our main mission" to "a surreal assignment" of intercepting a boatload of activists.

"Its entire intention was to generate media attention and (stage) a provocation. This matter is especially regrettable as we are talking about a group of Jews and of Israeli citizens, and even someone who has worn an IDF officer's uniform."

He was apparently referring to activist Yonatan Shapira, a former IDF pilot and now a member of Combatants for Peace.

International condemnation of the May action persuaded the government to relax restrictions on what Gaza can import. But Israel maintains the naval blockade in what it says is an effort to stop arms being smuggled to the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas, which has controlled the Gaza Strip since 2007.

The Irene was carrying what the activists called a symbolic load of medicine, a water purifying kit and toys.

Israeli peace activist Rami Elhanan told Israel radio shortly before the yacht was boarded that they had no intention of resisting. "We are not violent people and it never occurred to us to use any form of force," said Elhanan, who lost his 14-year-old daughter Smadar to a Palestinian suicide bomber in 1997.

(Writing by Douglas Hamilton, editing by Ralph Boulton)

Source: Reuters US Online Report Top News

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