Israel has freed six of 27 passengers and crew who were aboard two ships intercepted by its navy while trying to run the Jewish state’s blockade on the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, an official said on Saturday.
Commandos boarded the Irish-flagged Saoirse (Freedom) and the Canadian ship Tahrir (Arabic for Liberation) in international waters off Gaza on Friday before the navy escorted them to the port of Ashdod, the military said.
Interior ministry spokeswoman Sabine Hadad told AFP the six released included an Israeli Arab, two Greek crewmen and three journalists ─ from Egypt, Spain and the United States.
She said the remaining 21 people were still being held at a detention facility in Ramla near Tel Aviv, after questioning by immigration authorities.
Asked when the 21 activists were expected to be freed, Hadad explained the deportation process requires them to see a judge, a process that would take at least 72 hours.
At the end of the process, Israel would fly the activists back to their homelands, she said. Fourteen of the activists held by Israel were Irish, the rest are from Canada, Scotland, Australia and the U.S..
Activists organized a major attempt to break the Israeli blockade in May 2010, when six ships led by the Turkish Mavi Marmara tried to reach Gaza.
Israeli troops stormed the Marmara, killing nine Turkish activists and sparking a diplomatic crisis with Ankara, which expelled the Israeli ambassador and has cut military ties with the Jewish state.
Earlier this year, a second flotilla tried to reach Gaza, but several ships were sabotaged ─ which activists blamed on Israel.
Only the French-flagged yacht, the Dignity, was able to attempt the last leg of the journey but was stopped by the navy and those on board were deported.
Israel says its blockade is necessary to prevent weapons from entering the coastal territory, which is run by the Islamist Hamas movement.
Two months ago, a U.N. report on the flotilla raid accused the Jewish state of acting with “excessive force” but found that its naval blockade on the coastal territory was legal.