Israel navy seizes pro-Gaza vessel in international waters
Israeli naval forces boarded and took over an activist vessel seeking to break the Gaza blockade, and were escorting it to an Israeli port early on Monday, the military said, saying that the navy did not use force.
"In accordance with international law, the Israeli Navy advised the vessel several times to change course," it said in a statement.
"Following their refusal the Navy visited and searched the vessel in international waters in order to prevent their 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," it added. "The vessel is currently being escorted to Ashdod Port and is expected to arrive within 12-24 hours."
A military spokeswoman confirmed to AFP that the vessel was the Swedish-flagged Marianne of Gothenburg, part of the so-called Freedom Flotilla III - a convoy of four ships carrying pro-Palestinian activists including Arab-Israeli lawmaker Basel Ghattas, Tunisia's former president Moncef Marzouki and at least one European lawmaker.
The Israeli government on Sunday published a letter which will be handed to flotilla participants once they are in Israeli hands.
"If and when they reach Israel they will get a nice letter," foreign ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon told AFP.
"Welcome to Israel!" said the letter. "It looks as if you lost your way," it continues.
"Perhaps you intended to sail to a place not far from here; Syria where (President Bashar) Assad's regime is every day massacring his people, supported by Iran's murderous regime."
The Israeli comments, however, were dismissed as hypocritical by the Palestinians.
"Israel is trying to cover up its crimes against the Palestinians by the using the situation in Syria as a distraction," Dr Mazen Kahel, one of the main organisers of the Freedom Flotilla III, told MEE via phone from France.
"Does the fact that there is a crisis in Syria mean that we should forget about what is going on in Gaza? And why does Israel mention massacres committed elsewhere and not the ones carried out by its own army? We have a just cause and international solidarity with the Palestinians is growing by the day," he added.
Prior to the Israeli threat of intercepting the flotilla, Ghattas warned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu against "causing an international crisis," calling on the premier to allow for the safe passage of the passengers.
In a similar bid to break the blockade in 2010, a pre-dawn raid by Israeli commandos on the Turkish ferry Mavi Marmara killed 10 Turkish activists
Several attempts since have been thwarted, but without bloodshed. News of the latest boat being stopped by Israel was met by disappointment and anger from flotilla organisers in Gaza itself.
"I was looking forward to seeing my colleagues here in the Gaza Strip," said Awni Farhat, coordinator of the Gaza Ark Project and a Flotilla spokesperson in Gaza. "We were eagerly awaiting their arrival. My eyes were on the horizon for hours.
"We expected the Israeli navy to make this attack in the international waters, to control and to seize the boat. [The Israeli authorities] do everything they can to maintain and to tighten the blockage."
Israel imposed its blockade on Gaza in 2006 and in July-August 2014, it launched a 50-day military offensive against the coastal territory - the third in six years - killing about 2,200 mainly civilian Palestinians, and leaving 100,000 Gazans homeless.
Farhat said that despite the latest setback, there will be more efforts in the future to break the siege.
"At least the flotilla is helping people to share awareness about the truth and reality of Israeli policy, and how life is for 1.8 million people living under the blockade. They can’t have their freedom, they can’t travel when they want. It causes me frustration," he said.
"We will keep applying pressure until we break this illegal and inhumane blockade. We will keep trying."