Israeli naval commandos have peacefully boarded a Jewish aid boat attempting to break a naval blockade on Gaza, the Israel Defense Forces said at 11:30 A.M. Tuesday.
"IDF naval forces recently boarded the yacht 'Irene', and it is currently being led to the Ashdod seaport along with its passengers," the military said in statement that branded the boat a "provocation yacht".
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."
Before boarding, the navy transmitted two warnings to the boat, which refused to turn back and sailed further into the blockade area, the IDF said.
Shortly before, an Israeli warship had hailed the catamaran carrying Jewish activists toward the blockaded Gaza Strip, according to the group's website.
An Israeli destroyer was cutting off the boat's path and another small boat was also approaching, the 'Jewish Boat to Gaza' website posted minutes before reports of the interception.
At around 11:00 A.M., a navy boat shadowing the 'Irene' made radio contact with the activists, asking: "Where are you going? Where did you come from? What nationalities are on board?" according to the website
The crew replied:
"They came from Farmagusta, the nationalities on board are British, American, German and Israelis, we are going!" the website said.
The Irene is the latest vessel to try to breach the 3-year-old embargo on the Palestinian territory in the wake of the deadly Israeli raid on a Turkish-led flotilla in May, which drew international condemnation.
Earlier, Capt. Glynn Secker said he expected the navy to intercept the Irene, which is carrying nine Jewish activists from Israel and other countries.
"We will not obey them, we will not help them," Secker said. "But we will not confront them physically. We will engage in no violence."
Israel had asked the vessel, which Secker said was carrying medicines, therapeutic toys, water purifiers and outboard engines, to dock in an Israeli port. Cargo that receives security clearance would be transported to Gaza.
In the end, Secker predicted, the catamaran would be towed to the southern Israeli port of Ashdod, as has happened with other blockade-busting ships.
The Israeli foreign ministry has labeled the voyage a politically motivated provocation.
Nine pro-Palestinian activists were killed in May when Israeli commandos raided the lead ship in the Turkish-led flotilla. Both sides claimed they acted in self-defense.
The international condemnation triggered by the deaths forced Israel to relax its land blockade of Gaza but the naval blockade remains in force. Israel, with Egypt's cooperation, imposed the blockade after Hamas militants seized control of Gaza in June 2007.
The measure was intended to keep out weapons, turn Gazans against their militant Hamas rulers and pressure the group to free a captive Israeli soldier. Those aims were not achieved but the embargo deepened the misery of Gaza's 1.5 million people.
Activists behind the convoy involved in May's deadly raid have said they will send a new flotilla of at least eight ships to try to break the blockade by the end of this year. The Freedom Flotilla Coalition, an umbrella group of pro-Palestinian activist behind the efforts, said no date has been set.