Estelle seized by IDF
The Estelle welcomes Greek activists on board Oct. 16, 2012. The Israeli Navy on Saturday announced it had taken control of the Gaza-bound boat after it ignored repeated warnings to stop. Photo Getty Images
By Jack Guez, AFP
October 20, 2102
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.”
Israeli activists hold signs in support of Gaza near the entrance to the port of Ashdod October 20, 2012, Photo: Reuters
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.
Palestinian protesters hold placards denouncing the siege during a demonstration in Gaza port on Oct. 20 to support the Estelle seeking to breach Israel’s naval blockade on Gaza. Photo Mahmud Hams, AFP/Getty Images
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.
The Israeli navy has intercepted a boat of pro-Palestinian activists trying to break the blockade of the Gaza Strip.
The Finnish-flagged Estelle left Naples on 7 October with some 30 people of eight different nationalities aboard.
The boat was boarded 30 nautical miles off the coast of Gaza, activists said, before being taken to the Israeli port of Ashdod.
The Israeli military said the ship would be searched and the activists would be questioned then deported.
It said there was no resistance from the activists and the Israeli military did not use force.
Israel tightened the blockade after the Islamist group Hamas came to power in the coastal sliver in 2007.
‘Protect our borders’
The Estelle, which activists say is carrying cement, basketballs, musical instruments, and 30 doves, is the latest vessel to try and break the Gaza blockade.
Among those on board are politicians from several European countries and Israeli activists.
Activist spokeswoman Victoria Strand said Israel had carried out a “demonstration of ruthlessness”, whilst a spokesman for Hamas called it an act of “pircacy”.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the activists were trying “to provoke and slander Israel’s name”.
“If human rights were really important to these activists they would have sailed for Syria. We will continue to protect our borders,” he said.
It comes two years after nine Turkish activists were killed in an Israeli navy raid on the Mavi Marmara, one of a flotilla of ships attempting to break the blockade.
Palestinians say Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip amounts to collective punishment to residents of the densely populated strip of land along the Mediterranean coast.
Israel says the blockade aims to stop the supply of arms or other items for military use, and to put pressure on the Hamas administration.
International pressure following the deadly 2010 interception led Israel to ease its blockade, allowing more food products into the strip.
The movement of people and construction materials – such as cement and steel cables – is still heavily restricted.
The importing of all weapons and military materials is banned, along with dual-use materials such as fertilisers and certain chemicals.
Fishermen may only operate in a strip of water up to three nautical miles from the shore.