RAMALLAH, West Bank — Israeli commandos boarded and seized a Liberian-flagged ship that Israel says was carrying “tons” of weapons from Syria to Egypt. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the weapons originated in Iran and were on their way to Gaza, which is ruled by the Islamist Hamas movement.
“‘We are currently collecting information, and the one thing that is certain is that these weapons are from Iran with a relay station in Syria,” Netanyahu said. “It is our right and duty to stop the smuggling of these weapons.”
Israeli naval officials said they found several anti-ship missiles that could be used to strike Israeli naval or civilian ships.
Israeli army spokesman Avital Leibovich told AOL News that the sailors on board the German-owned ship offered no resistance.
“The boarding was done in a very peaceful manner, and there was no need to use violence,” she said. “We are currently taking the ship to an Israeli port, and we will examine the contents more carefully. There were a lot of containers on board and a lot of weapons.”
Leibovich also said that Israel does not believe that Turkey or Egypt were involved in the incident. Israel’s relations with Turkey have been strained since Israel boarded a Turkish-flagged aid flotilla headed for Gaza in May. Nine Turkish citizens were killed in the fighting, and Israel faced international condemnation.
She said that terrorist groups have several times previously tried to smuggle weapons by ship. The most well-known was in 2002 when the Israeli navy seized the Karine A, a vessel with 50 tons of missiles, mortars, rifles and ammunition, also headed for Gaza.
The Israeli seizure comes as thousands of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank demonstrated in favor of Palestinian unity and an end to the division between Hamas, which controls Gaza, and Fatah, in charge in the West Bank.
The demonstrators organized by Facebook, taking a page from the recent Egyptian revolution. Security forces from both Hamas and the Palestinian Authority did not interfere.
In Ramallah, the demonstration had a festive atmosphere as young men and women, some veiled, some not, mingled freely in downtown Manara Square. Several young couples held hands, and vendors hawked drinks and Palestinian flags.
There were no Hamas or Fatah flags, just hundreds of the red, green, black and white Palestinian flags. Groups of young men danced chanting pro-Palestinian slogans.
“The people want the end of the division,” they chanted, a clear reference to the slogans in Egypt’s Tahrir Square of “the people want the end of the regime.”
Several here said that the recent events in Egypt were their inspiration.
“What happened in Egypt is a perfect example of creative ways to move things forward,” Ibrahim Rabayah, 28, a Palestinian journalist, told AOL News. “In the past, Israel was able to stop our efforts for independence. But now, with social media and Facebook, they won’t be able to stop it.”
Senior Palestinian official Nabil Shaath, who has tried to end the division between Fatah and Hamas, said he was disappointed in the turnout but hoped this was only the beginning.
“We learned from Egypt that numbers are important — without a million people in Tahrir Square, Mubarak wouldn’t have left,” he told AOL News. “I had hoped that we would have at least 10,000 people here.”
There were an estimated 2,000 demonstrators, many of them Palestinian civil servants who were given time off to attend the demonstration. Unlike in Egypt and Tunisia, the demonstrators were not asking for regime change. They were asking their leaders to end the divisions that have existed since 2007, when Hamas took over sole control of Gaza and Fatah consolidated its control over the West Bank.
Last month, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas announced new elections for September. Hamas immediately said Gaza would not participate. Without Gaza, it is unlikely the elections would take place.
The division has also made it almost impossible to move forward with negotiations with Israel to end Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.
“We have to unite the people in spite of the leaders in Gaza or Ramallah,” said Leila Mansour, 65, a Palestinian writer and activist. “The leaders without the people are worthless, and they have to understand that in order to free Palestine, we need to unite.”