Israeli naval forces fired warning shots at a Malaysian aid ship as it approached the Gaza Strip on Monday, forcing the vessel to retreat to Egypt, organisers and the Israeli military said.
“The MV Finch, carrying sewage pipes to Gaza, had warning shots fired at it by Israeli forces in the Palestinian security zone this morning at 6:54 am (0354 GMT),” said Shamsul Azhar from the Perdana Global Peace Foundation.
“The vessel was in the Palestinian security zone, about 400 metres from the Gaza shoreline, when they were intercepted by Israeli naval forces,” he told AFP, adding it was now anchored 30 nautical miles away in Egyptian territory.
An Israeli army spokeswoman confirmed that the vessel, flying a Moldovan flag, had been intercepted as it sailed from Egypt’s El-Arish port, where it had been docked for several days.
“A navy patrol boat contacted the vessel, which claimed to be heading for the Gaza shores. Once it crossed into Israeli naval territory and didn’t answer calls to turn back, warning shots were fired in the air and it returned to El-Arish,” she said.
The Perdana Foundation is helmed by former Malaysian premier Mahathir Mohamad, an 85-year-old firebrand who was a strident critic of the West and Israel over the treatment of Palestinians during his two decades in power.
The organisation was also involved in the first “Freedom Flotilla”, a May 2010 attempt to break the Israeli blockade on Gaza, which ended in disaster when naval commandos raided the aid ships, killing nine Turks on board one of the vessels.
Perdana Foundation officials said the MV Finch left Greece on May 11, carrying plastic pipes to help restore the “devastated” sewage system in Gaza.
Alang Bendahara, a Malaysian journalist on board, told AFP that Israeli naval ships fired a volley of gunfire to stop the vessel as it approached the shore.
“The Israeli naval vessel fired a warning shot at us upon approaching and asked us to leave the waters but the ship’s captain refused and the Israelis fired again, circling the MV Finch before firing twice more,” he said.
“At that point they threatened the ship’s captain that they would board the vessel and we were forced to turn back. It was lucky that no one was injured.
Bendahara said Egyptian officials monitoring the boat had escorted it back to Egyptian waters and then boarded it to inspect its cargo.
He said there were 12 people on board the vessel — seven Malaysians, two Irish nationals, two Indians and a Canadian — including anti-war activists and journalists.
Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman condemned Israel for preventing the ship from reaching Gaza.
“Malaysia strongly condemns the attack by the Israeli naval forces on the humanitarian aid ship,” he said, calling on Israel “not to take any further drastic and violent military action on the unarmed passengers.”
“Malaysia also calls on Israel to ensure a safe passage for the vessel to Gaza to deliver the humanitarian cargo,” he added.
Israel has maintained a blockade on the Gaza Strip since 2006, after militants there snatched Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who is still being held.
It was tightened a year later when the Islamist Hamas movement seized control of the territory, ousting forces loyal to the Western-backed Palestinian Authority.
Israel agreed to relax some of the restrictions in July 2010, following a wave of international pressure after the botched raid on the Freedom Flotilla.
The incident sparked heavy criticism of Israel and led to a sharp deterioration in ties between Turkey and the Jewish state.