Israeli Navy commandos boarded a ship that was headed for the Gaza Strip overnight Sunday-Monday and took control of the vessel.
The interception occurred without incident and there were no injuries, the IDF said.
The Swedish-registered Marianne of Gothenburg will now be taken to Ashdod port, after which the activists on board will likely be deported, as Israeli officials had warned.
“In accordance with international law, the Israeli Navy advised the vessel several times to change course,” the IDF said in a statement.
“Following their refusal, forces visited and searched the vessel in international waters in order to prevent the intended breach of the maritime blockade of the Gaza Strip. The forces have reported that use of force was unnecessary, and that the process was uneventful. The vessel is currently being escorted to Ashdod Port and is expected to arrive within 12-24 hours,” it went on.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu congratulated the commandos on “their determined and efficient action in detaining the passengers on the ship that tried to reach the Gaza coast in contravention of the law.”
“This flotilla is nothing but a demonstration of hypocrisy and lies that is only assisting the Hamas terrorist organization and ignores all of the horrors in our region. Preventing entry by sea was done in accordance with international law and even received backing from a committee of the UN Secretary General,” Netanyahu said in a statement released to the press.
Earlier, flotilla organizers said that three other boats accompanying the Marianne had turned back to their ports of origin, without explaining why, and that the Marianne was sailing toward Gaza on its own.
“We once again call on the government of Israel to finally lift the blockade on Gaza,” the activists said in a statement. “Our destination remains the conscience of humanity.”
Shortly after 4:00 a.m. local time, organizers said they lost contact with the Marianne when it was about 100 nautical miles away from the Gaza coast. At least three Israeli Navy boats were nearby at the time, organizers said.
There were 18 activists and journalists aboard the Marianne, including the former Tunisian president Moncef Marzouki and Arab-Israeli Knesset member Basel Ghattas.
The activists had vowed not to use violence against the IDF forces, but to practice “passive resistance” when the boat is boarded, according to a Channel 2 reporter who was sailing with them.
On Sunday, Netanyahu’s office prepared a letter for the activists aboard the flotilla, slamming what it described as the hypocrisy of the group’s humanitarian mission to Gaza.
“Welcome to Israel!” the letter read. “It appears you’ve made a mistake along the way. Perhaps you meant to sail somewhere not far from here — Syria. There, Assad’s regime is massacring his own people every day with the help of the murderous Iranian regime.
“In contrast, here in Israel, we are dealing with a situation where terrorist organizations such as Hamas are trying to harm innocent civilians. In the face of these attempts, we are protecting the citizens of Israel in accordance with international law,” the letter says.
The statement calls attention to Israel’s transfer of 1.6 million tons of humanitarian aid to the coastal enclave, while it struggles to be rebuilt after the war last summer. The letter said that Israel facilitated the transfer of the supplies, which, it noted, amounts to approximately one ton for each Gaza resident.
Israel, continued the letter, regularly assisted in humanitarian projects benefiting Palestinians, but would not tolerate the import of weapons for terrorist groups. “Only a year ago, we thwarted an attempt to smuggle by sea hundreds of weapons intended for use against innocent civilians.
“There is no blockade on the Gaza Strip, and you are invited to transfer humanitarian supplies through Israel. Preventing access through the sea is done in accordance with international law, and we even received backing from a committee of the UN secretary-general.
“If human rights really interested you, you wouldn’t sail in solidarity with a terror group that executes Gazans without trial, and uses Gazan children as human shields,” the prime minister’s letter says.
The communique concludes by lamenting that the activists chose not to visit Israel, as they would have been “impressed” by the democracy upheld by the Jewish state that affords equality and religious freedoms for all its citizens.
Flotilla organizers, who say the campaign aims to shed light on the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, called upon the international community to provide protection from the Israeli military, which intercepted two previous flotillas in 2010 and 2011.
In May 2010, Israeli commandos intercepted the Turkish-flagged Mavi Marmara, the largest ship in a flotilla dispatched to Gaza by the Turkish relief agency Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH), and were violently attacked by those on board, with several soldiers seriously injured. Nine Turkish citizens were killed when the commandos opened fire in what Israel said was self-defense, and one more died last year from injuries sustained in the incident.
Israel and Egypt imposed a blockade on Gaza in 2007 after the Islamist Hamas group wrested control of the Strip in a bloody coup, ousting the Palestinian Authority leadership.
Both countries say the blockade is meant to prevent Hamas, which is committed to the destruction of Israel, from importing weaponry into Gaza. Hamas is avowedly committed to the destruction of Israel.