JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli soldiers commandeered a vessel carrying pro-Palestinian activists destined for Gaza on Saturday, cutting off communications and steering it from international waters toward the Jewish state.
The ship was the latest in a series of activist-manned vessels challenging Israel's blockade on the territory, imposed when the militant group Hamas seized the coastal strip in 2007. Israeli officials say they need to maintain the blockade, mainly to prevent weapons smuggling.
Six Israeli naval vessels stopped the Estelle as it was about 30 nautical miles from Gaza, with masked soldiers boarding the ship and ordering it to sail to Israel's Ashdod port, said a Victoria Strand, a spokeswoman for the activists.
The Swedish-owned, Finnish-flagged ship left Naples, Italy, on Oct. 7 with about 30 people from eight countries on board, including lawmakers from Norway, Sweden, Greece and Spain, as well as Israeli activists and a 79-year-old former legislator from Canada.
Israel, aided by Egypt, imposed a full border closure of Gaza by air, land and sea after Hamas took over the strip and drove out forces loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Israel eased its restrictions after its raid of a Turkish-led blockade-busting flotilla in 2010 left nine activists dead and sparked international condemnation.
Still, Israel continues to block sea access to Gaza and severely restricts its ability to export goods and import raw materials.
Israeli military spokeswoman Lt. Avital Leibovich accused the activists of staging a provocation and said the naval blockade was necessary to safeguard Israel's security.
"We have this blockade because there are constant smuggling attempts of weapons, munitions that eventually reach the hands of terror organizations inside Gaza," she said.
Strand said the takeover of the Estelle by Israeli forces was a "demonstration of ruthlessness."
The ship carried cement, basketballs and musical instruments. It was emblazoned with "Ship to Gaza" on one side, and also flew the colorful red, green, black and white Palestinian flag.
Activists say the blockade amounts to collective punishment of Gaza's 1.6 million residents, denying them the chance to trade and travel freely. Neighboring Egypt continues to impose restrictions at its passenger crossing with Gaza. The blockade has deepened the hardships of Gaza's most vulnerable in the impoverished territory, where between 70 percent to 80 percent of all residents rely on U.N. donated food aid to get by.
"It's hard to imagine what threat one sailboat, loaded with humanitarian supplies and a small number of people, could do to" Israel's mighty military, said Eva Manly, the wife of former Canadian parliamentarian James Manly. She said she lost contact with her 79-year-old husband early Saturday.
Israeli Defense Ministry spokesman Joshua Hantman said the goods onboard would be checked before entering Gaza through an Israeli-controlled land crossing. Hantman said militants have attempted in the past to smuggle weapons by sea. The latest attempt was in 2011, when a vessel carrying 50 tons of weaponry sought to reach Gaza, he added.
With additional reporting by Karl Ritter in Stockholm.