Group behind intercepted Gaza flotilla accuses Israel of 'piracy'

Organizers of a Gaza-bound flotilla that was intercepted by the Israeli navy complained Monday that they were victims of an act of piracy, while Israeli officials denounced the pro-Palestinian campaign as hypocritical and unnecessary.

The Marianne of Gothenburg, a Swedish fishing trawler leading a small flotilla headed for the Gaza Strip to protest Israel’s naval blockade of the Palestinian coastal enclave, was intercepted early Monday by Israeli naval commandos 115 miles from Gaza in international waters. No force was used, according to a statement from Israel’s military.

Organizers of the Freedom Flotilla III expressed concern for the passengers, who included former Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki, and charged that Israel had violated international maritime law by intercepting the boats in international waters.

"Israel's repeated acts of state piracy in international waters are worrying signs that the occupation and blockade policy extends to the entire eastern Mediterranean," the activist group said in a statement on its website.

It added that Israel was pursuing an "absolutely fruitless policy” in Gaza.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the navy for a swift interception and had harsh words for the activists. “This entire flotilla is hypocritical,” he said before a meeting with parliament's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

“There is no need for these small boats to deliver consumer goods or humanitarian assistance to Gaza,” Netanyahu said, adding that Israel has delivered more aid to Gaza than any other country over the last year -- more than 1.6 million tons of goods. Netanyahu invited activists interested in delivering humanitarian goods to Gaza to do so through Israel, which he said would screen goods to filter out weapons.

After following the Marianne of Gothenburg from a distance over the weekend, Israel’s navy contacted the boat and advised it to redirect course and not breach the naval blockade, officials said. The boat did not comply, was boarded by naval commandos and was then escorted to the Israeli port of Ashdod, where it is due to arrive by Tuesday, they said.

The foreign nationals on board, almost all of the 18 passengers, will be questioned by Israeli authorities and most likely deported through Ben Gurion Airport in an expedited process, officials said.

There has been no word from the passengers or crew since the interception, a spokeswoman for the activists, Ann Ighe, said from Sweden. Organizers in Sweden were speaking to the activists on the boat just before it was boarded, she said. 

“The call was cut off and we have not been able to establish contact ever since,” she said.

Ighe voiced concern for the passengers. “Even if the [navy] states the hijacking was uneventful, this doesn’t mean the passengers are being treated well,” she said, adding that in the past activists had been tasered or otherwise mistreated.

Ten activists were killed in 2010 when a Turkish ship, the Mavi Marmara, was intercepted by the Israeli navy en route to Gaza.

The Swedish organization has reached out to the country’s Foreign Ministry to make sure its nationals are treated well, Ighe said. Other passengers are from Norway, Spain, Canada, Russia and New Zealand, as well as Arab Israeli lawmaker Basel Ghattas and an Israeli journalist.

The lawmaker’s participation in the flotilla stirred controversy in Israel, and a parliamentary committee was set to convene Tuesday to mull restricting his parliamentary privileges.

Three Greek-flagged boats that set out behind the Marianne of Gothenburg turned back to Greece, organizers said. In a YouTube video from aboard one of the boats, the Rachel, spokesman Ehab Lotayef said unspecified "unforeseen circumstances" prevented the three boats from staying with the lead vessel.

Sobelman is a special correspondent.

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