The Israeli navy on Saturday rerouted a Gaza-bound ship to the Israeli port of Ashdod after the vessel attempted to break Israel’s maritime security blockade.
Masked Israeli soldiers boarded the ship, the Estelle, without the use of force. The operation came after attempts were made to prevent the vessel from reaching the Gaza Strip, both by direct contact and through diplomatic channels, but to no avail, the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) said in a news release.
The IDF found no humanitarian equipment onboard, despite activists’ claims that they were delivering needed materials to the Strip.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the IDF for its takeover of the Gaza-bound ship carrying pro-Palestinian activists. He said the Estelle’s passengers aimed to provoke and slander Israel.
In a televised statement, the prime minister hailed the military’s “efforts in safeguarding the naval blockade of the Gaza Strip in accordance with international law.”
Netanyahu said the people on the ship, among them three Israelis, “know that there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza, and their only goal is to create a provocation and to slander Israel’s name.”
He added that if human rights were indeed important to the 25 activists on board, they would have sailed to Syria.
The Estelle’s passengers and crew included activists and legislators from Greece, Sweden, the United States, Canada, Norway and Israel.
Among them was 79-year-old former New Democratic Party MP Jim Manly. Manly’s son, Paul, issued a statement Saturday afternoon saying his father, who is a retired United Church minister, was in Israeli custody.
“While he is in good health for his age, he is not as resilient as he was in his youth and has medication he needs to take daily. I hope that the IDF respect his human rights and legal rights, and treat him with the respect and dignity he deserves,” he said.
Ehab Lotayef, a spokesperson for Canadian Boat to Gaza, which helped organize Manly’s mission, told the Globe and Mail that Greek and Spanish members of the contingent were released after their governments’ ambassadors interceded with Israel.
A spokesperson for Canada’s Foreign Affairs department said Canadian consular officials in Tel Aviv and in Ottawa are monitoring the situation closely and have been in contact with Manly.
In Ottawa, Shimon Fogel, CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), said, “As with all past flotilla theatrics, this weekend’s attempt had nothing to do with humanitarian aid – indeed, according to media reports, there was no humanitarian aid supplies on the vessel. Rather, this was an effort to try to embarrass and by extension delegitimize Israel once again within the international community. Canadians have concluded long ago that such political theatre does nothing to advance peace and indeed does a disservice to the Palestinians the flotilla sponsors claim to be supporting.
“Manly – a former MP best known for boycotting the Meech Lake accord and voting against his caucus, and perhaps not by coincidence, a United Church ordained minister – has a long history of identifying with radical elements on the left.
“Israel has, quite correctly and in accord with international law, detained him as a result of his unlawful attempt to enter Israeli waters. and according to Israeli authorities, he will be deported forthwith,” Fogel said.
IDF Chief of the General Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz asked the military prosecutor to explore whether legal action can be taken against the Estelle’s passengers.
According to activists, the soldiers boarded the ship while it was still in international waters, some 38 nautical miles from the coast of Gaza.
Victoria Strand, a Stockholm-based spokesperson for the campaign, told Agence France Press (AFP) that the Estelle, a 174-foot (53-metre) 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” on Saturday.
Some reports had the Estelle carrying two olive trees as well as 41 tons of cement, toys, medical equipment and books. The IDF said, “Any organization or state who wishes to transfer supplies or aid to the Gaza Strip can do so via the existing land crossings and in co-ordination with Israeli authorities.”
Israel maintains that an air and sea blockade of Gaza, in place since 2007, is necessary in order to obstruct the flow of weapons to Hamas.
Under heavy international pressure, Israel eased the blockade in 2010 after an Israeli naval raid killed nine Turkish activists aboard the Mavi Marmara, a Gaza-bound ship.