Israel begins deporting Gaza aid activists

An Israeli navy vessel patrols off the southern port of Ashdod on July 19, 2011.

Story highlights

  • Activists refuse to sign deportation papers, organizers say
  • Activists criticize the Israeli military action as "violent and dangerous"
  • A Canadian activist complains of rough treatment, Israel's foreign ministry says
  • Previous flotillas have sparked international controversy
Israel says all 27 activists from two aid ships stopped on their way to Gaza have been deported or are awaiting flights out, but flotilla organizers say most refuse to sign papers required to expel them.
Israeli sailors boarded the Gaza-bound vessels Friday as they neared the Palestinian territory, which has been under an Israeli blockade since 2007. The Irish-registered Saoirse and the Canadian Tahrir were taken to the Israeli port of Ashdod after refusing to heed calls to turn back, the Israeli military said.
Organizers of the flotilla said six people, including the captains of both vessels and two journalists, had been released by Sunday evening. The remainder refused to sign waivers allowing their deportation, the Irish group said in a statement on its website.
"They are refusing to sign not because they are legally challenging deportation or are demanding to see a judge, but rather because the waiver says that they came to Israel voluntarily and that they entered the country illegally," the group said. Of course this is a lie and they won't agree to it."
The group criticized what it called a "violent and dangerous" seizure of the vessel. Fintan Lane, its coordinator, said the Israelis pointed guns at the passengers and turned high-pressure hoses on the Irish and Canadian boats, blasting out windows and causing a collision that left the Saoirse badly damaged.
"The method used in the takeover was dangerous to human life," organizers quoted Lane as reporting. "The Israeli forces initially wanted to leave the boats at sea, but the abductees demanded that they not be left to float at sea, for they would have been lost and possibly sunk."
The Israel Defense Forces said its sailors "took every precaution necessary to ensure the safety of the activists on board the vessels as well as themselves." An Israeli foreign ministry spokesman said one Canadian aboard the flotilla complained of rough treatment by the Israeli military, but no details were provided.
Activists criticized the Israeli action as "illegal" and vowed that activists "will keep coming, wave after wave" to try to deliver aid to Palestinians in Gaza. According to the activist organizers, this mission was the eleventh attempt to run Israel's blockade of Gaza by sea. Five missions arrived safely in Gaza between August and December 2008, with the rest intercepted by Israel.
The activists said the boats were carrying medical supplies and letters of support for people in Gaza.
Asked by the Israeli navy for their destination, Canadian activist Ehab Lotayef replied, "The conscience of humanity," the activists said in a statement.
When sailors repeated the question, asking for their final destination, Lotayef said, "The betterment of mankind."
Passengers on the boats were from Canada, Ireland, the United States, Australia, and the Palestinian territories, the activists say.
The flotillas have sparked international controversy.
In 2010, an Israeli raid on one flotilla ship, the Mavi Marmara, resulted in nine Turkish activists being killed, a development that led to the deterioration of relations between Israel and Turkey, once close allies. Israel was roundly criticized by many over the deaths.
A U.N. report criticized Israel for its use of excessive force in the incident but described the blockade -- which activists call illegal -- as a "legitimate security measure."
Israel says it is concerned about the smuggling of arms to Gaza militants intent on attacking the Jewish state. Gaza is controlled by the anti-Israel Hamas militant group, regarded as a terrorist group by the United States and Israel.
But activists say Israeli embargoes of goods into Gaza from land and sea are collective punishment of civilians in what is a tiny and densely populated strip of land along the Mediterranean coast.
Israel has said any organization or state that wants to give humanitarian aid to Gaza can do so in coordination with Israeli authorities via existing land crossings into the Palestinian territory.