"They blinded our eyes, bounded our hands, kept us in uncomfortable conditions for one hour ... they also told us not to communicate with each other in Arabic."

She said that the whereabouts of some of the 18 people who were on board the ship was unknown.

The Al-Ikhwa was carrying 60 tonnes of medical supplies, food, books and toys to Gaza, where a more than year-long Israeli blockade along with its devastating offensive last month have left residents struggling to get basic necessities.

Israeli denial

Israel denied using violence in the operation and said it had warned the ship on Wednesday night against entering Gaza's coastal waters.
 

The ship was carrying 60 tonnes of relief supplies bound for blockaded Gaza [AFP]
"During today's [Thursday] morning hours, the cargo ship changed its bearing, and began heading towards the Gaza Strip ... disregarding all warnings made," the Israeli military said.

The Al-Ikhwa, which originally set sail from Cyprus, left the Lebanese port city of Tripoli on Tuesday.

Maan Bashour, an aid co-ordinator for the group End the Blockade of Gaza, told Al Jazeera that the ship "was searched in Cyprus and in Lebanon".

"And we were very eager to let it be searched by Lebanese and Cypriot authorities in order that there be no reason for the Israelis to prevent it from going to Gaza."

Israel increased naval patrols off the coast of the Gaza Strip in December when it launched a 22-day air, naval and ground assault that left more than 1,300 Palestinians dead.

Foud Siniora, Lebanon's prime minister, condemned the attack on Al-Ikhwa, emphasising that it was on a humanitarian mission to Gaza.

"It is no surprise for Israel to perpetrate such an action as it has been accustomed to ignoring all international resolutions and values," he said in Beirut.

Yahya Mahmassani, the Arab League's envoy to the United Nations, said he had asked the staff of Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general, to intervene in the matter.

"I demanded that the ship be released immediately,'' Mahmassani said. "The world community should condemn this act of piracy. We consider this an act of piracy committed by Israel."