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Israeli navy boards 2 Gaza-bound boats

JERUSALEM -- Israel's navy boarded two small protest boats trying to break the blockade of the Gaza Strip on Friday and towed them to an Israeli port just north of the Palestinian territory, officials said. The military said no one was hurt.

Troops boarded the boats without incident after repeated calls for them to turn around were ignored, the military said.

Pro-Palestinian activists have mounted numerous attempts to reach the impoverished coastal strip by boat to draw attention to the 5-year-old blockade, which they say amounts to the collective punishment of Gaza's residents. Israel says its naval blockade is vital in preventing weapons from reaching violent groups like Hamas, the Iranian-backed militant group that rules the Gaza Strip.

Once the two small vessels reach the port of Ashdod, the activists will be detained and asked to leave the country voluntarily from the airport near Tel Aviv. If they refuse, they can have access to a lawyer to appeal being sent home.

There were 27 activists from nine countries including the United States and Ireland aboard the boats from a group called Freedom Waves to Gaza.

In Gaza, activist Amjad Shawwa called for the release of the activists, who he said "were on a civil trip to Gaza to help the Palestinians."

Israel sees the attempts to break the sea blockade as provocations and publicity stunts. It says the amount of aid in the small boats used by activists is insignificant, as Israel transfers 6,000 tons of aid to Gaza daily.

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