The Israeli Navy on Wednesday evening took over control of a boat of women activists that was headed to Gaza as a protest against Israel’s security blockade of the coastal strip.
The IDF confirmed the takeover.
The boat was commandeered without violence or any resistance from the 13 activists onboard, the army said.
It was intercepted some 35 nautical miles (65 kilometers) from the Gaza coast, and was making its way slowly toward the Israeli port of Ashdod.
El barco de mujeres a GAZA asaltado en aguas internacionales por Israel. Qué vergüenza! Que hace la UE? pic.twitter.com/ohyB2ca3xh
— Pedro Arrojo (@PericoArrojo) October 5, 2016
The group of 13 women, including 1976 Nobel Peace Prize winner Mairead Maguire, was traveling aboard the Zaytouna-Oliva sailboat in the Mediterranean Sea toward the Hamas-run Palestinian enclave.
“In accordance with government directives and after exhausting all diplomatic channels, the Israeli Navy redirected the vessel in order to prevent breach of the lawful maritime blockade,” the IDF said in a statement.
“In accordance with international law, the Israeli Navy advised the vessel numerous times to change course prior to the action. Following their refusal the Navy visited and searched the vessel in international waters in order to prevent their intended breach of the lawful maritime blockade of the Gaza Strip. The visit and search of the vessel was uneventful,” the statement concluded.
Women soldiers were placed at the forefront of the navy’s interception force, Israel Radio reported, in order to minimize friction with the activists.
The activists put up a website carrying prepared “SOS messages” by those on board alleging they had been “kidnapped” by the IDF.
— Freedom Flotilla (@GazaFFlotilla) October 5, 2016
They had expected to be boarded earlier Wednesday by Israeli authorities at around 100 nautical miles (185 kilometers) from the coast of the Gaza Strip, which has been controlled by the Islamist Hamas movement since 2007. But the interception came hours later
“The Zaytouna-Oliva has passed the fatal line of 100 miles and everything is going well,” Claude Leostic, spokeswoman for the activists, told AFP by telephone earlier in the day.
They saw lights that seemed to be focused on them at around 4 a.m. and assumed it was the Israeli navy, she said.
Israeli media had reported that the authorities planned to intercept the boat and then escort it to the Israeli port of Ashdod as it did with a similar attempt by activists last year.
Tweets by supporters posted photos they said were of a navy vessel nearing the boat.
Unlike previous flotillas, the boat did not carry humanitarian aid for Gaza, Hebrew media reported.
Gazans readied had to welcome the boat in the afternoon with music at the enclave’s port.
Pictures showed several people with balloons, and at least one Norwegian flag, at the port in Gaza City.
The Zaytouna-Oliva set sail from Barcelona in September.
Maguire, a Northern Ireland activist, was among the women of different nationalities on board.
Dubbed “Women’s Boat to Gaza,” the boat is part of the wider Freedom Flotilla Coalition that consists of pro-Palestinian boats that regularly seek to go to Gaza to try to break the blockade.
None has yet managed to get through, and Israeli authorities have made several arrests.
In 2010, a Turkish flotilla led by the Mavi Marmara ship was intercepted by IDF naval commandos. The soldiers were attacked as they boarded the Marmara, leading to a melee during which 10 Turkish activists were killed and several Israeli soldiers were wounded, two of them seriously.
While that incident gave Israel a diplomatic black eye and contributed to a deterioration of ties with Turkey, Jerusalem has since apologized as part of reconciliation deal with Ankara.
One of the funders of the current initiative, the Islamist Turkey-based IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation, was the main organizer of the Mavi Marmara flotilla.
Israel says its maritime, land and sea blockade of Gaza is aimed at preventing Hamas from receiving weapons and supplies which could be used for military purposes. An Islamist terror group, Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007, seeks the destruction of Israel, and has fought three wars with the Jewish state since 2008.
UN officials have called for the blockade to be lifted.
AFP contributed to this report.