A boat and its 13-woman crew sailing toward the shores of occupied Gaza was taken into custody by the Israeli navy this afternoon, ending a month-long sea voyage to “break the siege on Gaza.” The Israeli military said the vessel–organized by the international activist group the Women’s Boat to Gaza–was still in international waters, around 35 nautical miles from the Israeli port of Ashdod, at the time of the “uneventful” seizure.
“We do not know where our friends are,” the Women’s Boat to Gaza said in a statement in the hours after they lost communication with the sailors, “The U.S. embassy confirmed that the boat was intercepted.”
According to the Israeli military, the all-female activist ship was warned they were nearing Gaza’s shores and told to change course. The ship did not reroute.
“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 Israeli military said.
Sandra Ruch, an organizer with the Women’s Boat to Gaza stationed in Canada, told Mondoweiss, “The boat is being escorted to Ashdod” with passengers due to arrive in Israel in the coming hours on Wednesday night.
Activists with the boat say the Israeli military violated international law when it took control of the ship outside of Israel’s maritime zone of control.
“It is important to know that this happened in international waters and it is not only illegal but sets a bad precedent in giving a green light for other nations to attack civilian ships in international waters,” the group said in a statement today.
“The Zaytouna-Oliva was carrying no material aid. This was by design because Israel, as a premise for their attacks, would claim that weapons and contraband were on board. The owner of Zaytouna-Oliva is Israeli,” the group continued.
Gaza has been under siege since 2007, one year after the Islamic group Hamas took control of the Strip. Several boats carrying international activists have attempted to enter Gaza in order to deliver humanitarian aid, in short supply in Gaza over the last decade. In 2010, the Mavi Marmara, a boat on a similar mission in a flotilla, was taken over by Israeli commandos while in international waters. In the first moments of the confrontation, naval forces killed nine Turkish nationals, firing on the fleet as it boarded. A tenth passenger died three years later from wounds sustained during the encounter.
The affair led to a freezing of diplomatic relations between Israeli and Turkey. The two countries reached a detente earlier this year in June in an agreement that granted Turkey the ability to deliver more than 1,500 tons of food aid, and wheelchairs and diapers to Gaza.
The Women’s Boat to Gaza set out in a two-ship fleet, departing on September 15 from Spain with a farewell attended by the mayor of Barcelona. Once at sea, one of the boats broke down, cutting the number of sailors in half. As the Zaytouna-Oliva’s journey continued, more diplomatic support came from a letter signed by 55 European Union parliamentarians requesting safe passage.
“The Freedom Flotilla is a peaceful, civil society protest against the passivity and complicity of the international community, especially western governments, in the face of the inhumane situation in Gaza,” the letter said.
Another backing statement came this week from Norway’s minister of foreign affairs who also requested the boat be allowed to enter Gaza’s waters.
Aboard were 13 passengers, notably including Nobel laureate from Northern Ireland Mairead Maguire, and retired U.S. army colonel Ann Wright.
— Kenneth_Palestine✞✊ (@K_M_C_90) October 5, 2016
— Women’s Boat To Gaza (@GazaFFlotilla) October 5, 2016
— غزة تنادي (@ICBSGaza) October 5, 2016
This morning the Palestinian leadership weighed in, applauding the ship’s endeavor.
“The Palestinian cause for freedom and independence is a universal quest for justice embraced by millions worldwide,” said Chief Palestinian Negotiator Saeb Erekat, “The flotilla is a humble yet significant reminder that it is time to turn statements into concrete actions.”
However, for Israel any attempts to enter Gaza outside of an official crossing supervised by its military or Egyptian forces in the south is prohibited. Israel regards such travels as an intentional “illegal entry.” In previous instances where Israel’s navy apprehended activists on ships, the passengers were taken to a detention facility in southern Israel and later charged for crossing into Israel without permission. Several have been deported.