The Israeli navy intercepted a flotilla aiming to break the blockade on the Gaza Strip on Wednesday, about 35 nautical miles from the Israeli coast.
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According to a high-ranking officer, passengers on board the Zaytouna-Olivia offered no resistance when the troops took over the boat. The boat was redirected to the Israeli port city of Ashdod.
The Women’s Boat to Gaza, an initiative of the International Freedom Flotilla Coalition, which had set out from Barcelona, was scheduled to arrive at the port of Gaza on Wednesday night, according to its website.
Among the Zaytouna-Olivia's 13 passengers are several parliamentarians, an Olympic athlete, a retired U.S. army colonel and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Mairead Maguire of Northern Ireland.
Another boat, the Amal 2, was forced to turn back to Barcelona due to a technical malfunction. However, organizers have voiced suspicions that the boat was sabotaged.
According to reports and photos on social media, women and children were gathering on the beaches of Gaza ahead of the boat’s expected arrival.
PLO Secretary General Saeb Erekat strongly condemned the takeover, calling on Israel to immediately release the boat's passengers. "The Palestinian cause for freedom and independence is a universal quest for justice embraced by millions worldwide. The flotilla is a humble yet significant reminder that it is time to turn statements into concrete actions," the statement read.
In January, Israeli forces intercepted the Gaza-bound boat Marianne, 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.
The Swedish boat was carrying 20 activists, among them Israeli lawmaker Basel Ghattas (Joint Arab List) and former Tunisian president Moncef Marzouki.
In 2010, Israeli troops boarded the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara, which was attempting to break the blockade of the Strip. Nine passengers were killed during the operation. Another person died in a Turkish hospital in 2014 after being in a coma for almost four years.
The convoy organized by the Turkish aid agency Humanitarian Aid Foundation (IHH), and was carrying humanitarian aid and construction materials for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. The incident caused a deep rift between Israel and Turkey, which was bridged this year in a reconciliation deal that required Israel to pay compensation to the families of the Turkish victims.
Also on Wednesday, a rocket fired from Gaza exploded in the Israeli border city of Sderot on Wednesday after sirens sounded in communities near the Gaza border. No injuries were reported.
The Salafist group Ahfad al-Sahaba claimed responsibility for the rocket fire. The IDF responded to the rocket fire by firing tank shells at Hamas targets in Beit Hanoun, in northern Gaza, nearly an hour later. According to Palestinian media, no injuries were reported. Israeli jets launched at least four airstrikes against Hamas targets in Gaza City and Khan Younis later Wednesday.