Boat Carrying Wounded Palestinians Breaks Gaza Blockade, Gets Towed to Israel

Palestinian boats carrying people wounded in recent demonstrations in the Gaza Strip have been intercepted by Israeli naval vessels during a desperate effort to break the blockade of the coastal territory.

The main boat in the flotilla is carrying around 20 passengers, accompanied by several smaller vessels, AFP reported. Passengers include students wishing to study abroad, those wounded in recent protests in the Gaza Strip and patients suffering from long-term conditions. The flotilla was intending to reach Cyprus.

According to the We Are Not Numbers organization, the flotilla's lead ship sailed past the limit of the blockade while being shadowed by Israeli warships, with other boats stopped around 6 nautical miles from the coast. The lead vessel is now being towed to Israel, the group reported.

Palestinians on boats raise the Palestinian flag, off the Gaza coast, on May 29. Palestinian boats carrying those wounded in the recent Gaza Strip confrontations were hoping to break Israel’s maritime blockade on Gaza but were intercepted by Israeli naval vessels. The flotilla was hoping to reach Cyprus. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

The organization said that some of those accompanying the flotilla set fire to an Israeli monitoring buoy during the breakout effort.

In the past, Israeli vessels have fired warning shots at Palestinian fishing boats approaching the limit of the blockade. A website linked to the flotilla said organizers had warned passengers that the boats could be attacked by the Israeli navy or that they could be arrested.

The names of those sailing with the flotilla have been kept secret to protect their safety. According to organizer Salah Abdul-Ati, the trip "will carry the hopes and dreams of the Palestinian people for freedom." Another organizer, Alaa Al-Battah, said the protest is designed "to shed light on the suffering of Gazans and to send out a message to the world that we have a right to our land, sea and ports."

Related: Humanitarians on the high seas: Freedom Flotilla sets sail for Gaza

The launch of the boats marks the eighth anniversary of the 2010 Gaza Flotilla Raid. As an international fleet of activist ships attempted to reach Gaza in spite of the naval blockade, Israeli commandos raided the Turkish Mavi Marmara and killed nine activists; a tenth later died from their wounds.

The organization behind the 2010 flotilla has already launched its 2018 effort, with the boats expected to push for Gaza in mid-July. The flotilla posted a statement to its website saying it "salutes this humanitarian mission and calls on the governments and the peoples of the world to act to ensure safe passage of these boats and the civilians on board."

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Smoke rises following an Israeli air strike in the Gaza Strip, as seen from the Israeli side of the border between Israel and Gaza, on May 29. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

Last week, Israeli airstrikes targeted Palestinian vessels to be used either in today's flotilla launch or to greet the international fleet attempting to break the blockade in July. The strikes were part of an operation to degrade the "underground terror infrastructure" of Hamas, the Israeli Defense Forces said.

The launch of the Palestinian flotilla follows several days of tensions and violence that culminated in a large mortar barrage launched from Gaza toward southern Israel on Tuesday, allegedly by the Islamic Jihad group with permission from Hamas.

In response, Israeli airstrikes have been targeting Hamas and Islamic Jihad positions in the Gaza Strip. Amid such escalation, the challenge for the flotilla is even more daunting.

Gaza has been under blockade by Israel and Egypt since 2006 to stop Hamas diverting imported materials to military use. Israel has now started work on breakwater fortifications to help seal off the maritime approaches to the Gaza Strip. The "new and impenetrable" barrier "will effectively prevent the possibility of penetrating Israel by sea," Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said.