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Activists say approach Gaza, Israel denies threat

Palestinian girls play on a street in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip June 29, 2009. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

NICOSIA (Reuters) - Activists sailing to Gaza with humanitarian aid said they had been intercepted by an Israeli gunboat on Tuesday, but the Israeli military said it was just monitoring the aid ship while it was in international waters.

Overnight, the activists -- in a small ferry boat sailing from Cyprus to Gaza -- said they had received threats they would be fired upon unless they turned back.

Yigal Palmor, Israel’s foreign ministry spokesman told Reuters no such threats had been made. He said the boat’s declared destination was Port Said in Egypt and that the boat appeared to be heading in that direction.

“If it changes course and tries to go to Gaza or declares that it intends to do so, the navy can take action, although they would definitely not fire at the boat,” Palmor said.

The activists from U.S.-based Free Gaza Movement have publicly said their destination was Gaza, which is under an Israeli blockade, and activists on board the boat earlier told Reuters an Israeli patrol boat had approached them.

“We were told that if we did not turn back they would open fire,” said Derek Graham, an Irish activist.

“We are continuing our course to Gaza,” he said.

Israel tightened its Gaza blockade in 2007 after the Islamist group Hamas took control of the enclave, a tiny sliver of territory which is home to some 1.5 million people.

The Israeli navy patrols Gaza coastal waters. It has intercepted activists of the same group sailing into Gaza on two previous occasions.