Israel Leads Aid Vessel Challenging Gaza Blockade to Ashdod

Israeli troops boarded a Finnish-flagged vessel carrying aid to the Gaza Strip in contravention of the country’s sanctions against the Hamas-controlled enclave.

The Estelle is being led to the nation’s port of Ashdod, the Israeli army said today in an e-mailed statement. The ship was carrying 30 passengers from Scandinavia, the U.S., Canada, Spain, Italy and Greece, and cargo including musical instruments, children’s books and wheelchairs, Jane Hirschmann, an organizer of the ‘U.S. Boat to Gaza’ flotilla and part of a U.S. coordinating committee for the Estelle, said in a telephone interview from New York.

“The people who were on the boat know there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a text message to journalists today that praised the navy for its action. “If human rights were really important to them, they would sail to Syria.” Netanyahu said Israel would continue to protect its borders “with determination and power.”

Israel says the maritime blockade is necessary to prevent arms smuggling by Hamas, considered a terrorist organization by Israel, the U.S. and Europe. Those wishing to send goods to Gaza can do so via existing land crossings and the port of Ashdod, the army said.

“The crew of Estelle told me that a number of Israeli vessels surrounded the boat in the regional waters,” Mustafa al-Barghouti, a member of the Palestinian National Initiative, told reporters in Ramallah today. “The aim of the ship is to challenge Israel’s naval blockade on the Gaza Strip.”

A previous flotilla’s attempt to reach the Gaza Strip by sea ended in violence on May 31, 2010, when Israeli naval commandos dropped from helicopters onto the deck of the Mavi Marmara, part of a six-boat convoy, after the ship refused to stop. Nine Turks were killed. Israel says people on board shot first and attacked with iron bars, a charge they deny.

Since then, attempts to breach the blockade, including an attempt by two boats in November 2011, have ended peacefully.

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