Canadian in Israeli custody after aid ship to Gaza seized

A former B.C. politician, who was taken into custody by Israeli authorities after an aid ship bound for Gaza was intercepted at sea, is refusing to sign a waiver that could trigger his immediate release, his wife says.

Ex-New Democrat MP Jim Manly on ship trying to break blockade

The activist ship Estelle is seen docked at Naples harbour on Oct. 6, 2012. (Ciro De Luca/Reuters)

A former B.C. politician, who was taken into custody after Israeli troops commandeered a Gaza-bound ship as it tried to break through Israel's blockade, is refusing to sign a waiver that would trigger his release according to his wife.

European lawmakers and other pro-Palestinian activists aboard — including former New Democrat MP Jim Manly — did not resist, and the Finnish-flagged vessel was diverted to an Israeli port.

The trip by the ship, Estelle, marked the latest challenge to the air, land and sea embargo of Gaza that Israel imposed after Hamas seized the territory in 2007.

Manly's wife Eva has said her husband won't sign a waiver that could get him out of the country immediately, because he doesn't  want to go until the whole crew is released. The former MP will now have to wait to appear before a judge, which could happen some time in the next three days.

Eva has said her husband was on the Gaza-bound vessel to bring attention to "the suffering of the Palestinians of Gaza." She said she lost contact with Manly early Saturday.

The Freedom Flotilla Coalition released a statement Sunday saying that Israeli crew members were transferred to Ashkelon, and charging that they will face persecution there.

Former NDP MP Jim Manly makes a statement in a pre-recorded video released on YouTube on Oct. 20, 2012, after the Estelle was commandeered by Israeli troops. (YouTube, CanadaBoatGaza/Canadian Press)

"Despite the confirmed deportation of some of the crew members [from Greece and Italy] we are deeply concerned about the continuing detention of the others, including Jim Manly," said Ehab Lotayef, an organizer with the group.

"We call on all governments to increase pressure on the Israeli government to ensure the Estelle crew are treated with dignity, that their rights as non-violent protesters be respected and that they all be released immediately."

In a statement, officials from Canada's Department of Foreign Affairs said that "consular officials in Tel Aviv and in Ottawa are monitoring the situation closely and are in contact with the Canadian citizen who was aboard the MV Estelle."

"Canadian officials have also been in ongoing contact with Israeli officials and with the Canadian citizen's family," the statement reads, saying "consular assistance is being provided as necessary."

Israeli officials say they need to enforce the blockade to prevent weapons smuggling. Meanwhile, Hamas called for more attempts to break the sea blockade.

PM says no humanitarian crisis

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a statement praising the military for enforcing the blockade, said there "is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza" and accused the activists of trying to "to provoke and slander Israel's name."

"If human rights were really important to these activists they would have sailed for Syria. We will continue to protect our borders," he said.

Six Israeli naval vessels stopped the Estelle when it was about 30 nautical miles from Gaza. Masked soldiers boarded the ship and ordered it to sail to Israel's Ashdod port, said a spokeswoman for the activists.

The vessel arrived at port Saturday night and was to be inspected to see what was on board, the Israeli military said. Israel's Interior Ministry said the activists on the ship would be questioned by immigration officials and deported to their home countries within 72 hours.

The Swedish-owned Estelle left Naples, Italy, on Oct. 7 with about 30 people from eight countries, including Israeli activists, lawmakers from Norway, Sweden, Greece and Spain, and Manly, who is 79.

'Respect our human rights'

"We are committed to non-violence. We are committed to raising the illegal siege of Gaza. We think that it is important for the Canadian government to stand up for our rights," Manly said in a pre-recorded video statement which was to be released if the ship was intercepted.

The retired politician also said he hoped Canadians would contact the government to highlight the activists' innocence.

"Ask them urgently to insist with the Israeli government that it respect our human rights, our legal rights."

Manly's son issued a statement Saturday afternoon urging authorities to treat his father according to international conventions.

"While he is in good health for his age, he is not as resilient as he was in his youth and has medication he needs to take daily. I hope that the Israeli Defence Forces respect his human rights and legal rights and treat him with the respect and dignity he deserves," said Paul Manly.

The Harper government has been critical of similar missions in the past, calling them unhelpful.

"We strongly urge those wishing to deliver humanitarian goods to the Gaza Strip to do so through established channels," wrote Rick Roth, a spokesman for Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird in an email on Sunday. "Unauthorized efforts to deliver aid are provocative and, ultimately, unhelpful to the people of Gaza."

"Canada recognizes Israel’s legitimate security concerns and its right to protect itself and its residents from attacks by Hamas and other terrorist groups, including by preventing the smuggling of weapons," Roth wrote.

Ottawa warns Canadians against all travel to Gaza, saying the security situation along the coast remains volatile.

Israeli military spokeswoman Lt. Avital Leibovich accused the activists on Saturday of staging a provocation.

"We have this blockade because there are constant smuggling attempts of weapons, munitions that eventually reach the hands of terror organizations inside Gaza," she said.

A similar flotilla in 2010 ended in bloodshed — nine people were killed and 45 injured after Israeli soldiers boarded a Turkish vessel trying to break the blockade.

Over the past decade, Gaza militants have fired thousands of rockets and mortar rounds toward Israeli border towns.

Unwritten truce, occasional violence

Although Hamas and Israel have maintained an unwritten truce for more than two years, violence occasionally flares in the area. Most recently, an Israeli strike on a prominent al-Qaeda-inspired jihadi prompted two days of tit-for-tat rocket fire and strikes last week.

Victoria Strand, a spokeswoman for the activists, said the takeover of the Estelle by Israeli forces was a "demonstration of ruthlessness."

The ship was carrying cement, basketballs and musical instruments, Strand said. It was emblazoned with "Ship to Gaza" on one side, and also flew the colourful red, green, black and white Palestinian flag.

Israel, aided by Egypt, closed Gaza's borders after Hamas seized control and drove out forces loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas more than five years ago. Israel eased its restrictions after its raid of a Turkish-led blockade-busting flotilla in 2010 left nine activists dead and sparked international condemnation.

Still, Israel continues to block sea access to Gaza and severely restricts its ability to export goods and import raw materials.

Activists say the blockade amounts to collective punishment of Gaza's 1.6 million residents, denying them the chance to trade and travel freely. Neighboring Egypt continues to impose restrictions at its passenger crossing with Gaza.

The blockade has deepened the hardships in Gaza, where three in four residents rely on UN food aid to get by, according to UN figures.

Israeli Defence Ministry spokesman Joshua Hantman said the goods onboard would be checked before entering Gaza through the Israeli-controlled land crossing, Kerem Shalom.

He said Israel allows some 50,000 tons of goods into Gaza every week. Gaza residents also use dozens of smuggling tunnels linked to neighbouring Egypt to bring in contraband goods, particularly construction materials.

Hantman said militants have tried in the past to smuggle weapons into Gaza by sea. In 2011, a vessel carrying 50 tons of weaponry sought to reach Gaza, while in 2009, a boat tried to bring in some 500 tons of weapons, he said.

A Hamas spokesman condemned Israel's actions as "piracy."

"This confirms that the (Israeli) occupation is maintaining its control and isolation of Gaza. There must be more flotillas of solidarity activists to Gaza," said Fawzi Barhoum.

With files from CBC News