Norway called on Israel Tuesday to explain the seizure of a Norwegian-flagged ship on Sunday that was attempting to break the maritime blockade on the Gaza Strip.
“We have asked the Israeli authorities to clarify the circumstances around the seizure of the vessel and the legal basis for the intervention,” Reuters quoted a Norwegian foreign ministry spokesman as saying.
On Sunday, the Israeli navy seized the “Freedom,” and arrested the 22 passengers who were attempting to breach the blockade on Gaza.
Israel says the naval siege is necessary to prevent weapons and equipment from entering the Hamas-run Palestinian enclave that can be used in attacks.
The flotilla was organized by the Freedom Flotilla Coalition, an umbrella of organizations aiming to end the closure of Gaza, and set sail from the Danish port of Copenhagen.
Oslo said it was providing consular help to the five Norwegians who were among the 22 passengers aboard the ship.
The Norwegian group Ship to Gaza Norway called for an investigation into alleged improper use of force by Israeli troops, who they said struck the boat’s captain on the head.
“This is a peaceful boat; it’s impossible that it can threaten Israel’s security,” the group’s head Torstein Dahle said.
The Israel Defense Forces defended its use of force during the seizure, saying in a statement quoted by Hadashot TV news that “an investigation of the incident shows that during the seizure of the vessel reasonable force was employed to overcome the passengers’ resistance.”
The leader of Norway’s opposition Socialist Left party, Audun Lysbakken, urged the country’s Foreign Ministry to protest Israel’s “hijacking” of the vessel, saying the sailors had a right to demonstrate against the blockade and calling for the activists’ release.
Israel’s Foreign Ministry said it would respond to Norway’s complaints later this week.
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The “Return” was the first of two ships in a “Freedom Flotilla” trying to break Israel’s maritime blockade on Gaza.
Those on board the ships included Prof. Ismail Nazari, chairman of Malaysia’s boycott Israel campaign; Charlie Andreason of Sweden, who spent time in Israeli detention for his role on the Marianne, a Swedish-flagged trawler leading a flotilla of boats in June 2015; Spanish Jewish activist Zohar Shamir Chamberlain; and Heather Milton-Lightening, an activist for indigenous Canadians.
Israel has imposed a blockade on Gaza since terror group Hamas, which is sworn to Israel’s destruction, seized the territory from the internationally backed Palestinian Authority in 2007. It says the blockade is in place in order to prevent weapons and other military equipment from entering the Strip.
Critics point to worsening humanitarian conditions in Gaza and say the blockade amounts to collective punishment of the two million Palestinians living there. There have been many reports that the coastal strip is “on the verge of collapsing,” and could plunge into a new round of fighting with Israel if conditions do not improve.
Egypt, too, has kept its Gaza border crossing largely closed during several years of sour relations with the Islamist group ruling Gaza.
Many attempts have been made to draw attention to the Palestinian cause using blockade-busting flotillas.
Two years ago, 13 women, including Nobel Peace Prize winner Mairead Maguire of Northern Ireland, were detained and then deported after their sailboat, “Women’s Boat to Gaza,” was stopped around 35 nautical miles off the coast of Gaza on its way to break the blockade.
The Israel Navy said at the time that it had stopped the boat to prevent a “breach of the lawful maritime blockade” of the Palestinian enclave and after advising it “numerous times to change course prior to the action.”
The most notorious flotilla sailed in 2010 and involved the Turkish flag-bearing Mavi Marmara, the biggest ship in a six-vessel convoy.
IDF commandos who boarded the ship were violently attacked by those on board. Nine Turkish citizens, including one with American citizenship, were killed in the ensuing melee, and a tenth died of his wounds years later. A number of Israeli soldiers were injured in the raid.
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