At approximately 10 a.m. EST, organizers for the Women’s Boat to Gaza lost contact with the Zaytouna-Oliva, the vessel carrying female peace activists bound for Gaza. The U.S. embassy has confirmed that the boat was intercepted, and the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) has confirmed its responsibility for the seizure of the sailboat.
The vessel, which was seized in international waters, was intentionally carrying no material aid. As a premise for seizing—sometimes violently—vessels attempting to break its blockade of Gaza, Israel has claimed that weapons and contraband were being smuggled into the embattled Palestinian territory aboard humanitarian envoys. No violence has been reported with the seizure of the Zaytouna-Oliva. The boat’s owner is Israeli.
Thirteen activists were aboard the vessel, including Ann Wright, a decorated former U.S. diplomat and a member of the Veterans For Peace Advisory Board, three parliamentarians, an Olympic athlete and Nobel Peace Laureate Mairead Maguire.
The boat was commandeered without violence or resistance from the 13 activists onboard, the Israeli army said. It was intercepted some 35 nautical miles (65 kilometers) from the Gaza coast, and was making its way slowly toward the Israeli port of Ashdod.
“In accordance with government directives, and after exhausting all diplomatic channels, the Israeli Navy redirected the vessel in order to prevent breach of the lawful maritime blockade,” the IDF said in a statement.
“In accordance with international law, the Israeli Navy advised the vessel numerous times to change course prior to the action. 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 statement concluded.
Female soldiers were placed at the forefront of the navy’s interception force, Israel Radio reported, in order to minimize friction with the activists.
The activists put up a website carrying prepared “SOS messages” by those on board alleging they had been “kidnapped” by the IDF.
“The Zaytouna-Oliva has passed the fatal line of 100 miles and everything is going well,” said Claude Leostic, spokeswoman for the activists, earlier in the day. At around 4 a.m., local time, the crew saw lights being pointed at their vessel and assumed it was the Israeli navy, she said.
Israeli media had reported that the authorities planned to intercept the boat and then escort it to the Israeli port of Ashdod as it did with a similar attempt by activists last year.
Some Palestinians had spent the night at the beach in anticipation of greeting the vessel, and several people carried balloons, and at least one Norwegian flag, at the port in Gaza City. The Zaytouna-Oliva set sail from Barcelona in September.
Dubbed the “Women’s Boat to Gaza,” the boat is part of the wider Freedom Flotilla Coalition that consists of pro-Palestinian boats that regularly seek to go to Gaza to try to break the blockade. None has yet managed to get through, and Israeli authorities have made several arrests.
In 2010, a Turkish flotilla led by the Mavi Marmara ship was intercepted by IDF naval commandos. The soldiers were attacked as they boarded the Marmara, leading to a melee during which 10 Turkish activists were killed and several Israeli soldiers were wounded, two of them seriously.
That incident contributed to a deterioration of ties with Turkey, Jerusalem has since apologized as part of reconciliation deal with Ankara. One of the funders of the current initiative, the Islamist Turkey-based IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation, was also the main organizer of the Mavi Marmara flotilla.
Israel says its maritime, land and sea blockade of Gaza is aimed at preventing Hamas from receiving weapons and supplies which could be used for military purposes. Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007 and has fought three wars with the Jewish state since 2008.
UN officials have called for the blockade to be lifted.