Activist Boat 'Violently Attacked' by Israeli Navy While Attempting to Reach Gaza, Organizers Claim

A ship carrying pro-Palestinian activists and humanitarian supplies was seized by the Israeli navy while attempting to breach the blockade of the Gaza Strip on July 29.

The Al-Awda vessel—meaning "The Return"—is part of the Freedom Flotilla, and was carrying 22 people from 16 nations when it was stopped by Israel Defense Forces (IDF) ships and rerouted to the nearby city of Ashdod.

Haaretz said the navy said the boat "was tracked and captured in accordance with international law" before being towed to the nearby port.

Israeli navy ships maneuver at the military port of Ashdod, in southern Israel, on July 29, before intercepting the Al-Awda boat. The ship carrying pro-Palestinian activists and humanitarian supplies has been seized by the Israeli navy while attempting to breach the blockade of the Gaza Strip. JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images

According to organizers, the boat was hoping to break what they consider to be an illegal blockade of the Gaza Strip, which has been largely sealed off by Israel and Egypt since the Islamist Hamas group took control of the coastal enclave and its 2 million people in 2007. The flotilla was hoping to raise awareness of the poor humanitarian conditions in the Gaza Strip and to deliver medical supplies.

Citing the testimony of crew members already released, James Godfrey, a spokesperson for the Freedom Flotilla Coalition, said the seizure of the Al-Awda was conducted with significant violence. The vessel was approached by four warships before being boarded by Israeli soldiers, he told Newsweek, and those on board were "violently attacked" while the boat's communications were cut.

"People were hit repeatedly, many people were tasered, some people were handcuffed extremely tightly," Godfrey explained, claiming "there was blood over the deck" after the action was complete. Ann Wright, a co-coordinator with the Coalition based in the U.S., said the vessel's captain and engineer were beaten by troops, while a 69-year-old doctor was hit.

A spokesperson for the IDF told Newsweek its troops used "proportional force in order to constrain the provocateurs on board the ship," who it said were attempting "to violate the legal maritime blockade on the Gaza Strip."

"The Israeli navy is trained to execute such missions, and has been doing so in a professional and responsible manner for many years," the spokesperson added. "In comparison with prior experience of the Israeli navy in similar events, no extraordinary events were reported."

Godfrey said five people from the boat have so far been released, including two journalists from Al Jazeera. Two Israeli citizens—Yonatan Shapira and Al-Awda boat leader Zohar Chamberlain Regev—have been charged with attempting to travel to Gaza, and conspiracy to commit a crime. Both have now been released on bail under the condition that they do not attempt to travel to Gaza or contact others from the boat.

Godfrey said that two of the crew members who are still in detention have begun a hunger strike in protest, and Wright added that the other crew members are gradually being released and deported back to their home countries.

A statement released by the coalition claimed that the Norwegian-flagged boat was in international waters when it was seized. The statement urged the Norwegian government and the governments of all those detained "to intervene and to demand the immediate, unconditional release of Al-Awda and everything that was on board, including all of the participants and the medical aid" that the vessel was carrying.

Godfrey said that another boat carrying 15 more activists was on its way to Gaza, and should arrive in the waters around the Gaza Strip within the next few days.

In 2010, a Turkish Freedom Flotilla ship was violently boarded by Israeli commandos, leaving 10 activists dead and 10 soldiers injured. Activists on other ships were detained and deported in the days after the incident.

This article has been updated to include additional comments from the Israel Defense Forces.