JERUSALEM — The Israeli military said on Friday that it had boarded two small boats that were sailing toward Gaza to challenge Israel’s maritime blockade of the Palestinian coastal enclave. There were no immediate reports of violence or injuries.
The boats, one Canadian and the other Irish, were carrying 27 pro-Palestinian activists, journalists and crew members from nine countries. The military had stated that it would prevent the boats from reaching Gaza, which is ruled by the Islamic militant group Hamas.
The Israeli Navy initially notified the vessels that they were en route to an area under blockade and advised them to turn back, or to sail to a port in Egypt or Israel, the military said in a statement.
Shortly after, an Israeli military spokeswoman said the boats had been boarded by naval forces. “The boarding followed numerous calls to the activists,” the spokeswoman, Avital Leibovich, wrote on Twitter, adding that the navy “took every precaution to ensure the safety of activists.”
The military said that the boats would be steered to Ashdod port in Israel where the activists would be handed over to the police and immigration authorities.
The two boats set sail from a Turkish port on Wednesday, four months after the last international flotilla to Gaza was stalled by the Greek authorities who held some vessels in port. Two other vessels, including the Irish boat now headed for Gaza, were damaged at port under mysterious circumstances. The protesters said the boats were sabotaged.
The Israeli authorities view the efforts to break the blockade as provocations designed to embarrass Israel and undermine its security. In May 2010, Israeli commandos raided a large flotilla and fatally shot nine protesters — eight Turkish citizens and an American citizen of Turkish descent — after meeting tough resistance on the deck of a Turkish passenger vessel.
This time there appeared to be little prospect of a violent confrontation. An organizer on the Canadian boat, Ehab Lotayef, a Canadian electrical engineer of Egyptian origin, said in a video message on Wednesday after leaving Turkey that the participants “are not going to challenge Israel physically. We are a peaceful mission that is committed to the safety of the personnel on board” the two vessels, he said.
Mr. Lotayef added that the goal was “to say that the blockade is illegal and inhumane.”
“We would want to see everybody manage to go to Gaza freely from any country in the world,” he added.
Israel says that the maritime blockade of Gaza is in accordance with international law and is essential to prevent weapons smuggling. Its position was backed by the Palmer report, a United Nations review of Israel’s 2010 raid published in September that found the blockade of Gaza to be legal and appropriate.
Fintan Lane, the organizer of the Irish vessel, rejected the Palmer Report, saying in a statement that the “the report itself acknowledges that it was ‘not asked to make determinations of the legal issues’ associated with the blockade,” and that its “legal speculations have been comprehensively repudiated.”
Mr. Palmor of the Israeli Foreign Ministry said “they can reject anything they want,” noting that the Palmer Report was adopted by the United Nations secretary general.
He added that the necessity of the blockade was underlined by the firing of dozens of rockets from Gaza last weekend. The longer-range rockets are imported to Gaza.
The wrangling over the blockade was replicated on social media, where supporters of the two boats seeking to reach Gaza attached the tag #freedomwaters to their updates on Twitter, while the Israeli government labeled its own official updates with #provocatilla.
Israel formally imposed the maritime blockade in early January 2009, during its three-week military offensive against Hamas.
A land blockade has been eased under international pressure since the deadly raid on the Turkish-led flotilla. Goods flow into Gaza across the land crossings with Israel, though exports out of Gaza are still severely restricted for security reasons according to Israel. The Egyptian authorities recently reopened the Rafah crossing, on the Egypt-Gaza border, for passengers, but travel in and out of Gaza is still very limited, including for foreigners.
Hoping to avoid a repeat of last summer’s experience, the organizers of the latest miniflotilla kept their plans secret until they had left Turkey for international waters.