Three of the four vessels that make up the flotilla en route to the Gaza Strip changed course and were heading back to their ports of origin, organizers announced overnight Sunday-Monday, adding that the Swedish-registered Marianne of Gothenburg was continuing on solo toward the blockaded Palestinian enclave.
Organizers also said they lost contact with the Marianne shortly after 4:00 a.m. local time, when it was about 100 nautical miles away from the Gaza coast, and that at least three Israeli Navy boats were seen trailing the flotilla earlier.
It was not yet clear if the ship was intercepted by the IDF.
“Marianne called at 1:06 CET: 3 boats, the closest being 500 m away. They have identified themselves as Israeli military. #NextPortGaza,” the Freedom Flotilla tweeted.
— WWR-Help (@WWR_Help_de) June 29, 2015
The Marianne was expected to reach Gaza in the next 24 hours unless intercepted, organizers said.
“As the ‘Marianne’ enters the final segment of its trip, the Freedom Flotilla Coalition has decided to reveal its strategy. At this moment the three sailing boats accompanying and supporting the ‘Marianne’ (‘Rachel’, ‘Vittorio’ and ‘Juliano II’) are changing their course and will be heading back to their ports of origin. Political representatives, journalists, peace activists on board, a total number of 29 sailors, have assisted the Marianne and its people towards their long and difficult journey, which has always remained to end the illegal and inhumane blockade of Gaza,” the Freedom Flotilla III coalition said in a statement.
Israeli officials have warned that any boats will be stopped and boarded by naval commandos before they reach the Gaza Strip, then towed to the Ashdod port. The activists aboard will then be whisked to Ben Gurion Airport and deported, Channel 2 reported earlier.
There were 18 activists and journalists aboard the Marianne, including the former Tunisian president Moncef Marzouki and Arab-Israeli Knesset member Basel Ghattas. Israel is wary about Marzouki’s presence, concerned that there may be protests in Tunisia if he is arrested, Channel 2 said.
The activists 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 is sailing with them.
Earlier, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office on Sunday prepared a letter for the activists aboard the flotilla. The communique stated Israel’s position concerning the naval blockade of the Strip — designed to prevent Hamas’s import of weapons — which the IDF will prevent the activists from running.
The Prime Minister’s Office shared a translation of the original Hebrew letter that it prepared to hand out to the flotilla activists. The communique slams what it describes as the hypocrisy of the group’s humanitarian mission to Gaza.
“Welcome to Israel!” the letter reads. “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.