The Israeli Navy on Saturday surrounded a ship carrying pro-Palestinian activists intent on breaching Gaza’s blockade as it approached the coastal strip. IDF soldiers boarded the vessel without employing the use of force and rerouted it to the port of Ashdod, where it arrived just after 8 p.m. local time.
Six Israeli boats surrounded the ship, the Estelle, and masked soldiers boarded it while it was still in international waters, some 38 nautical miles from the coast of Gaza, according to activists.
IDF Chief of the General Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz asked the military prosecutor to explore whether or not legal action can be taken against the Estelle’s passengers.
The IDF said Saturday night there was no humanitarian aid on the vessel.
Victoria Strand, a Stockholm-based spokeswoman for the campaign, told AFP the Estelle, a 174-foot (53-meter) schooner, came “under attack” shortly after the Israeli vessels approached it. Dror Feieler, an Israeli activist aboard the ship, was quoted by AFP as saying the ship was “attacked at 10:15 a.m.”
The IDF issued a statement in which it said that no force was used against the activists.
“A short while ago, Israeli Navy soldiers boarded the Estelle… The boarding was carried out in accordance with international law, with directives of the Israeli government and after all attempts to prevent the vessel from reaching the Gaza Strip were made, both via direct contact and through diplomatic channels, but to no avail,” the IDF said.
It added: “As a result of their [the activists'] unwillingness to cooperate and after ignoring calls to change course, the decision was made to board the vessel and lead it to the port of Ashdod.”
The Navy “took every precaution necessary to ensure the safety of the passengers. After boarding the vessel by IDF soldiers, who did not need to use force, the passengers were attended to and offered food and beverages,” the IDF said in the statement.
Upon arrival at the Ashdod port, the activists were to be transferred to the police and immigration authorities within the Ministry of Interior.
The Estelle’s passengers and crew included activists and members of parliament from Greece, Sweden, the US, Canada, Norway and Israel. Since setting out from Sweden three months ago, the Estelle had docked at several Europeans ports, where passengers held media conferences to raise awareness of the situation in Gaza. It set sail for the Hamas-run enclave from Naples, Italy, earlier this month.
The stated purpose of the voyage was to bring humanitarian aid to Gazans.
“I want to say that we are here to give a message of solidarity to the people of Gaza,” said Reut Mor, an Israeli activist aboard the Estelle, before the ship was intercepted. “The siege is inhuman and immoral, and this is the reason — as non-violent peaceful activists — (we) decide(d) to risk ourselves and break the siege,” CNN reported.
Sailing under the Finnish flag, the Estelle was reportedly carrying two olive trees as well as 41 tons of cement, toys, medical equipment, and books.
Israel has maintained an air and sea blockade of Gaza for the stated purpose of preventing weaponry reaching the Strip, from which rockets and mortar shells are frequently fired into Israel. Hamas, which is avowedly committed to the destruction of Israel, seized control of the Strip in a violent 2007 takeover from Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah-led Palestinian Authority.
Under heavy international pressure, Israel eased the closure in 2010 after a naval raid killed nine Turkish activists on board a vessel in a previous Gaza-bound flotilla, the Mavi Marmara. Naval commandos seeking to commandeer the Marmara were attacked by violent activists as they boarded.
Philip Podolsky contributed to this report.