Israeli forces intercepted the Gaza-bound boat Marianne late Sunday night, in what the Israeli Defense Forces said was a short operation, free of any casualties. The boat was rerouted to the Ashdod port, arriving there Monday evening.
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Two additional boats making their way to the Gaza coast turned back after the interception. It was not clear whether they were returning to their ports in Greece or if they planned to resume their sail to Gaza at a later time.
Naval commandos from the Shayetet 13 unit searched the boat after the successful takeover. According to military sources, the ship is expected to dock in Ashdod within the next 12 to 24 hours, depending on weather and sea conditions.
After arriving in Ashdod, the passengers will be interrogated before being escorted to Ben-Gurion Airport and flown out of Israel.
The Swedish boat, which on Sunday afternoon was 150 nautical miles from the Gaza Coast, is carrying 20 activists, among them MK Basel Ghattas (Joint Arab List) and former Tunisian president Moncef Marzouki.
"This flotilla is nothing but a demonstration of the hypocrisy and lies that only help Hamas and ignore the atrocities in the region," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said following the interception. "The sea blockade is in accordance with international law, and has received backing from the UN Secretary General."
"We are not willing to allow in weapons to the terrorist organizations in Gaza, as they have tried to do in the past, by sea," Netanyahu added. "Just a year ago, we stopped an attempt to bring in hundreds of weapons by sea, that were meant to harm Israeli civilians."
According to the army's original plan, after boarding the ship, the soldiers were to hand out a letter issued by the Prime Minister's Office, welcoming them to Israel and wondering why they sailed to Gaza and not Syria. "Perhaps you meant to sail somewhere else nearby – Syria, where Assad's regime is massacring his people every day, with the support of the murderous Iranian regime."
Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon praised the Israel Navy for commandeering the Marianne overnight. "This flotilla does not have humanitarian intentions, and is not interested in anyone's welfare. The participants' goal is to continue de-legitimizing the state of Israel. This is part of the hypocritical show of lies from various factions around the world that prefer to support and bolster a relentless terrorist group like Hamas, which instead of caring for Gaza residents, tries to smuggle in weapons in order to use them against Israel and its civilians," said Ya'alon in a statement.
Activists aboard the Marianne have said they are unarmed and will not forcibly resist IDF efforts to stop them from reaching their destination.
Their plan was for the boat to approach the Gaza coast within 24 hours, during the day, and not at night, but flotilla organizers said Saturday that the Marianne would arrive either overnight or early Monday morning. The timing had depended on sea conditions and the weather, since the Marianne is a small fishing vessel.
Two other boats that set sail Friday from Greek ports with the intent of joining the Marianne were forced to return to port by the Greek authorities, and the Marianne is expected to approach Gaza alone.
Ghattas on Sunday called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon to allow the Marianne to enter Gaza’s port.
In his letter to Netanyahu and Ya’alon, Ghattas wrote, “As you know, I declared my intention to participate in the flotilla to Gaza out of clear political motivations, because of my opposition to the ongoing blockade of the Gaza Strip.” Ghattas added that “the blockade is illegal and contravenes international humanitarian law, in that it imposes collective punishment on Gaza residents.”
Ghattas wrote that along with the former Tunisian president, the vessel’s passengers included European parliament members, journalists, academics and writers. “All the passengers are peace activists and their sole purpose is to protest the closure of Gaza and to provide humanitarian aid – medical equipment to Shifa Hospital.”
Ghattas called on the Israeli officials “to order the security forces to allow the entrance of the Marianne and avoid the use of any forces, which undermines the ship’s humanitarian mission.”