A Gaza-bound ship of activists and lawmakers which was boarded by Israeli troops, arrived late Saturday at Ashdod port under naval escort, ending the latest bid to reach the blockaded Palestinian enclave.
More than 10 hours after Israeli naval commandos took control of it in international waters, the Finnish-flagged Estelle docked at Ashdod harbour in southern Israel. It was escorted there by two naval vessels, an AFP correspondent said.
The takeover ended the latest attempt by pro-Palestinian activists to breach Israel’s tight maritime embargo on Gaza which prohibits all naval traffic in and out of the coastal territory.
“There was no violence,” an Israeli military spokeswoman told AFP. “The passengers did not resist.”
Troops had taken control of the 53-metre (174-foot) vessel and were taking it back to Ashdod port in southern Israel, she added.
On board the ship are 17 passengers, including five parliamentarians from Europe and a Canadian former lawmaker, organisers said. It was carrying a shipment of humanitarian aid and 30 doves, which the passengers had been intending to release on arrival in Gaza.
“We’ve heard nothing since they told us they had come under attack,” said Victoria Strand, a Stockholm-based spokeswoman for Ship to Gaza-Sweden. “We believe they have just passed into Israeli territorial waters.”
Earlier, Strand told AFP that the vessel had been boarded at 0830 GMT after being approached by navy vessels some 38 nautical miles off the Gaza coast.
The military said the boarding was carried out only after “numerous calls to the passengers onboard” had gone unanswered.
“As a result of their unwillingness to cooperate and after ignoring calls to change course, the decision was made to board the vessel and lead it to the port of Ashdod,” the military said. The troops “did not need to use force,” the statement added.
Sabine Haddad, an Israeli immigration spokeswoman told AFP that “30 passengers, including 27 foreigners and three Israelis, got off the ship this evening in Ashdod. They will be questioned tonight.”
The foreigners, “entering illegally into Israel, will be expelled to their countries of origin. They could be repatriated immediately if they waive being heard by a judge who must rule on their expulsions within 72 hours.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the army and denounced the move as “a provocation” the sole objective of which had been “to blacken the name of Israel”.
“Even people on the boat know that there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza,” he said in a statement.
“If they are really worried about human rights they should be en route to Syria,” he added.
The takeover of the MV Estelle was quickly denounced as “piracy” by Gaza’s Hamas rulers.
“The occupation’s attack on the Estelle and its capture of the activists on board is an act of piracy and a crime against humanity,” said spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri.
“It should provide an extra incentive for ships showing solidarity with Gaza and for regional and international efforts to lift the siege on Gaza and end the suffering of its people,” he said.
Gisha, an Israeli group that campaigns for Palestinian freedom of movement and trade, also denounced the commandos’ intervention.
“The question is not what is entering Gaza but rather what — and who — is being permitted to leave,” it said.
“Israel continues to prevent people in Gaza from travelling to the West Bank and marketing their goods outside Gaza, stifling economic and social development,” the group added.
If Israel insisted on enforcing its blockade it had an obligation to “allow free movement of people and goods via the land crossings, subject only to individual security checks.”
Ahead of the ship’s arrival in Ashdod, a group of 20 Israeli peace activists gathered on a nearby beach. They held up signs in English and Hebrew reading: “End the siege of Gaza” and “Blockade = war crime,” an AFP correspondent said.
“We oppose Israeli policy, which seeks to maintain its control through siege and closure, strangulating the Palestinian people,” said a coalition of Israeli rights groups. They included the Coalition of Women for Peace, Yesh Gvul and the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel.
Activists organised a major attempt to break the Israeli blockade in May 2010, when six ships led by the Mavi Marmara tried to reach Gaza.
Israeli troops stormed the Marmara, killing nine Turkish activists and sparking a diplomatic crisis with Ankara.
Israel has stopped several subsequent attempts to reach Gaza by boat, but there has been no repeat of the bloodshed.
Israel says its blockade is necessary to prevent weapons from entering the coastal territory, which is run by the Islamist Hamas movement.
Last year, a UN report on the 2010 raid accused Israel of having acted with “excessive force”, but found that its naval blockade of Gaza was legal.