Blast Strikes Protest Boat Docked in Gaza, Activists Say Israel to Blame

'Gaza's Ark,' set to sail to Europe to protest Israel's blockade of Gaza, was hit by a blast early Tuesday; IDF: We don't respond to such reports.

Hamas policemen inspect the Gaza's Ark, a Palestinian-built protest boat which was preparing to run Israel's naval blockade, after it was damaged in an explosion at the Gaza port, April 29, 2014. AFP

Activists in the Gaza Strip said Tuesday that the Israeli military was behind the overnight explosion that rocked a boat set to sail to Europe in protest of Israel's blockade of the enclave. The Israel Defense Forces spokesperson declined to comment, stating that the army does not respond to such reports.  

The large fishing vessel, named "Gaza's Ark," had been anchored in the Gaza port. At around 3 A.M. the guard on duty received an anonymous call, and was told to get away from the boat.

The guard thought the call was a prank at first, the project's leader in the Gaza strip, Mahfouz Kabarti, told Haaretz. A loud blast was heard from the boat shortly after the call, however, and it sank partially into the water.

The guard was about 200 meters away when the explosion occurred and escaped unscathed, AFP reported.

Kabariti told Haaretz he had no doubt that Israel was responsible.

Preparations for the sail had been overtly underway for months, Kabariti said, with the support of activists from Europe, the Arab world and Israel, human rights organizations, and local Palestinians. The idea was to set sail in June, transporting Palestinian products from the Strip to Europe to raise awareness of the blockade.

"Gaza's Ark and all our partners in the Freedom Flotilla Coalition are considering our next move in response to this cowardly act of terrorism," Gaza's Ark Steering Committee said in a statement.

The vessel was designed to transport goods and more than 100 people, according to AFP. This would be the first time goods would be exported by sea from the coastal enclave since the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993.

Israel currently allows Gaza fishermen to venture only six nautical miles from the shore, though the size of the area periodically fluctuates. After rockets were fired toward Israel from Gaza during U.S. President Barack Obama's visit in March 2013, for example, Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon reduced the limit to three nautical miles, and it was increased again after a period of quiet.

The permitted fishing area off the Gaza Strip shore is a significant issue in the coastal territory. Increasing the extent of its range was part of the framework of understandings achieved following the Israel Defense Force's Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza last year, and was considered one of Hamas' achievements in the negotiated cease-fire.

The three-mile limit upon Gazan fishing was originally implemented in January 2009 after the IDF's previous military operation in Gaza, Operation Cast Lead. In 2011, the Israeli navy placed buoys in the water to mark the boundary of the permitted fishing area.