JERUSALEM — Israeli naval commandos intercepted a protest ship at sea bound for the Gaza Strip on Monday and diverted the vessel toward a port in Israel. The Israelis said no one was injured in the operation.
The Swedish-registered Marianne of Gothenburg was attempting to enter Israeli-controlled waters in the Mediterranean Sea and deliver aid packages to Gaza. Aboard were crew members, journalists and activists, including Israeli Arab lawmaker Basel Ghattas and former Tunisian president Moncef Marzouki.
The activists were protesting Israel’s maritime blockade of the coastal enclave.
Israel maintains a complete air and sea blockade of Gaza and a partial blockade of goods and people through two land crossings. Israel forbids Gaza from having an airport or a seaport, except a small fishing harbor. Gaza fishermen are allowed to venture no more than a few nautical miles from shore.
Other protest ships have attempted similar runs to beat the blockade, including a Turkish-organized vessel in 2010 that was intercepted at sea by Israeli commandos in a raid that left nine activists dead and soured once-close relations between Israel and Turkey.
Egypt also operates a Gaza crossing point, but it has been closed most of the year. The Egyptian military has destroyed most of the smuggling tunnels used by Gazans to import goods and contraband, including weapons.
Palestinians say the 1.8 million people in Gaza, many of them refugees from earlier wars with Israel, live under siege. Israel says it maintains the blockade because Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist militant movement that controls the strip, is a terrorist organization that seeks to import arms and materials to build “offensive tunnels” to infiltrate Israel and stage attacks.
An Israeli military spokesman said Monday that the navy ordered the Marianne to turn back. When the vessel’s crew refused, navy commandos boarded and searched the ship. The spokesman said the “use of force was unnecessary” and “the process was uneventful.” Three other ships in the flotilla turned back earlier.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement: “This flotilla is nothing but a demonstration of hypocrisy and lies that is only assisting the Hamas terrorist organization and ignores all of the horrors in our region.”
In an earlier interview with The Washington Post, Ghattas said the protest was a nonviolent political act meant to highlight the misery in Gaza.
The member of parliament called the blockade “inhumane and illegal.”
“It is a collective punishment of Palestinians, who live in jail-like conditions” that have contributed to the cycles of violence that have sparked three wars between Hamas and Israel in six years, Ghattas said.
The prime minister’s office issued a communique on Sunday evening intended for the Gaza-bound activists.
“Welcome to Israel!” the letter reads. “It appears you’ve made a mistake along the way. Perhaps you meant to sail somewhere not far from here — Syria. There, [President Bashar al-] Assad’s regime is massacring his own people every day with the help of the murderous Iranian regime. In contrast, here in Israel, we are dealing with a situation where terrorist organizations such as Hamas are trying to harm innocent civilians. In the face of these attempts, we are protecting the citizens of Israel in accordance with international law.”