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Passengers of freighter seized by Israel return home with tales of abuse

Soldiers kicked and beat activists, journalists before setting them free

Andrew Wander | The Daily Star

BEIRUT: A group of activists arrested after the Israeli navy seized an aid ship bound for the devastated Gaza Strip were expelled from Israel on Friday, a day after being detained by the military. Fifteen of the Togolese-flagged Tali’s crew members were deported back to Lebanon and Syria early on Friday, and three others were preparing to fly to London.

Nine Lebanese and a Palestinian were handed over at the border with Israel to the UN peacekeeping force responsible for monitoring stability in southern Lebanon.

The freed crew told how they were beaten and handcuffed after Israeli gunboats fired on the ship and sailors stormed the vessel, arresting everyone on board. The boat was then towed to the Israeli port of Ashdod where it was searched.

Salam Khodr, an Al-Jazeera journalist who was on board the vessel, said the Israelis had taken the crew’s possessions when they were arrested. “The Israeli army confiscated all our videotapes; we were separated from each other, we were blindfolded and handcuffed. They beat some of us; I was beaten,” she said.

“The soldiers kicked Dr Hani Suleiman, in the chest and back; we asked for a physician to check Dr Suleiman who suffered short breath; one Israeli female soldier answered: ‘You should have thought about his health condition before you attempted to come and break the siege of Gaza’,” Khodr said.

An Israeli military spokes-man admitted that no arms had been found on the ship, which turned out to be laden with medicine, food, and humanitarian supplies for the population of the war ravaged enclave.

Israel is enforcing a tight blockade of Gaza, but said that blood donations that were on board had been immediately transferred to territory. More than 1000 units of donated blood were part of the ship’s humanitarian cargo.

The Arab League described the seizure of the vessel and the detention of those on board as “an act of piracy,” and said it would complain to the United Nations about the incident.

But Israeli officials defended their actions, saying that the boat had raised suspicions because “it could threaten security concerns, or furthermore, the boat could be used for smuggling banned equipment [weaponry etc.] into or out of the Gaza Strip.”

The ship set sail from Tripoli on Tuesday, docking in Cyprus where its cargo was checked before beginning its onward journey towards Gaza. But it was intercepted by Israeli helicopters and gunboats as it tried to enter Gazan territorial waters.

Israel denies that their sailors fired at the ship, but passengers insist that they came under attack. “They opened fire on us,” Khodr said.

The Tali remains in port at Ashdod and there has been no indication of when it will be allowed to sail.

In the months before Israel’s recent military offensive in Gaza, several boats breached the naval blockade to deliver aid and free Palestinian students trapped in the coastal strip.

But since fighting in Gaza began at the end of last year, Israel has clamped down on aid shipments entering the enclave. Last month an Iranian ship was prevented from delivering humanitarian supplies, and in December a vessel belonging to the Free Gaza Movement was rammed and badly damaged by an Israeli gunboat.

The interception of the Tali marks the first time Israel has captured an aid ship and its crew, and will be seen as a clear signal that it will not tolerate further attempts to circumvent the blockade of Gaza.

Hamas has said that lifting the crippling restrictions on the territory’s borders is a precondition for any sustainable ceasefire with Israel, but the Jewish state has so far refused to consider relinquishing control of the borders. – With agencies