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IDF intercepts freedom flotilla attempting to breach Gaza blockade

Israeli soldiers, right, try to stop a vehicle decorated in a shape of a ship by Palestinian, Israeli and international protesters, to depict one of the ships of the humanitarian flotilla that tried to get to Gaza, during a protest against Israel's separa
AP Photo/Nasser Ishtayeh

The IDF intercepted a Norwegian-flagged ship attempting to breach the Gaza Strip's maritime blockade and transferred the vessel to the port of Ashdod, the army confirmed on Sunday.

"The Israeli Navy clarified to the ship's passengers that they are violating the legal naval blockade and that any humanitarian merchandise can be transferred to Gaza via Ashdod," the army statement read.

"The activity ended without exceptional events," the statement added.

Head of the International Committee for Breaking the Siege of Gaza (ICBSG) Zaher Birawi announced earlier in the day, that the small fleet dubbed the "Freedom Flotilla" was sailing towards Gaza shores and was nearing its territorial waters.

According to the flotilla group, the IDF issued a warning that said the navy would "take all necessary measures" if the vessel did not adjust its course.

Four boats that constitute the squadron, left from Scandinavia in mid-May and stopped in some 28 ports along the way, the coalition said. Two boats remained behind after a recent stop in the Italian town of Palermo.

The first boat named Al-Awda ('The Return') with 22 people on board arrived in Gaza Sunday on afternoon carrying humanitarian aid and medical supplies to the Palestinians in the blockaded enclave.

A second boat, that is part of the same group, the Swedish-flagged Freedom, is expected to arrive in the Gaza area in the next couple days, according to the Freedom Flotilla Coalition.

The ships, which carry such names as ‘Return’, ‘Freedom,’ and ‘Palestine' have taken about two months to reach anywhere close to the coast of the enclave.

The boats are said to to be carrying nationals from Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Israel, Malaysia, New Zealand, Norway, Spain, Sweden, the UK, and the US. 

Passengers include activists and members of the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaigns namely Professor Ismail Nazari, the chairman of Malaysia’s branch of the campaign and Charlie Andreason of Sweden who was formerly detained by Israel after leading a flotilla of boats back in 2015.

Other recognized individuals include Spanish Jewish activist Zohar Shamir Chamberlain and activist for indigenous Canadians, Heather Milton-Lightening.

The boats are carrying 13,000 euros worth of medical supplies collectively raised by the coalition, its partner the ICBSG, and the other national solidarity groups involved.

The Israeli and Egyptian blockade on Gaza began in 2007, when Hamas took control of the strip from the Palestinian Authority, implemented in order to prevent military equipment and artillery from reaching terror elements like the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’ military wing.

The blockade has faced criticism from various UN and humanitarian groups, which organizations like the Red Cross calling the blockade a type of ‘collective punishment’ imposed on the Gazan people.

Free Gaza Movement/AFP/File

Humanitarian conditions in Gaza have steadily declined in recent years and it’s economic state is dire. The enclave's approximately two million residents labor under restrictive Israeli and Egyptian blockades, daily blackouts and sky-high unemployment. Some have argued it is on the verge of collapse.

Israel however, claims ‘the naval blockade is a necessary and legal security measure that has been recognized repeatedly by the world and the UN as important to the security of the state and its maritime borders that protect Israeli civilians in the face of terror and smuggling of weapons,” the IDF statement wrote.

This is not the first time that a flotilla has traveled to Gaza in an effort to draw attention to the campaign to end the blockade.

Two incidents this year saw the Israeli navy stop Gaza fishing boats attempting to break out of the blockade rather than into it, with the intention of seeking medical assistance. After seizing the boat, on both occasions, the IDF provided treatment to those requiring help.

Two years ago, 13 women including Mairead Maguire a peace activist from Northern Ireland who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1976, were detained 35 nautical miles from the Gaza coast upon the ‘Women’s Boat to Gaza’ and subsequently deported.

The most infamous example of trying to break the blockade was in 2010, when a Turkish ship attempt to reach the Gaza coast. When IDF soldiers attempt to board the ship, they were violently attacked by the crew. Ten Turkish people were killed as a result of that exchange.

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