A ship carrying pro-Palestinian activists protesting Israel's sea blockade of the Gaza Strip was boarded by Israeli naval commandos, who took command of the vessel.
According to a statement from Israel's military early Monday, the navy contacted the boat while it was in international waters and advised it several times to change course to avoid breaching the blockade.
The captain refused and Israel's navy boarded the Swedish-registered Marianne of Gothenburg to search it before escorting it to the port of Ashdod. According to the military, there was no need to use force.
In Ashdod the activists will probably be deported, as Israeli officials have warned.
The incident comes five years after the fatal interception of a Gaza-bound flotilla.
The new flotilla of four boats, organized by the Freedom Flotilla III, set to sea from Greece in recent days, carrying 47 passengers from 17 countries.
It also carried a message to Israel: Lift the blockade imposed on the Palestinian enclave after the militant movement Hamas wrested control of Gaza from the more moderate Palestinian Authority in 2007.
Efforts by international activists to break the blockade began the following year. Israel let the first one reach Gaza but subsequent efforts were intercepted by the Israeli navy.
In May 2010, 10 activists were killed when naval commandos intercepting the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara encountered resistance.
On Sunday, the Marianne was 150 nautical miles away from Gaza when Basel Ghattas, an Arab Israeli lawmaker onboard, sent a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urging him to refrain from using military force to stop the ship.
“This blockade is illegal and a collective punishment contravening international humanitarian law,” he wrote. Ghattas said the 20 passengers included former Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki.
Several hours later, Netanyahu's office circulated a letter that flotilla activists would receive upon their arrival in Israel.
“Welcome to Israel!” the letter begins, tongue-in-cheek, adding that perhaps participants intended to sail to Syria to protest that government's cruelty but lost their way.
Shortly after 4 a.m. Monday, flotilla organizers said they lost contact with the Marianne when it was about 100 nautical miles off Gaza. At least three Israeli navy boats were nearby, organizers said.
Flotilla organizers also said that three other boats accompanying the Marianne had turned back to their ports of origin without explaining why and that the Marianne was sailing solo toward Gaza.
The activists said they vowed to not use violence against Israeli forces but to practice “passive resistance” if their vessel was boarded.
A spokesman for the flotilla, Loukas Stamellos, said the Marianne, a fishing trawler, was carrying solar panels to be donated to a hospital in Gaza. The mission also planned to donate the ship to a Gaza fishermen's association.
Netanyahu had invited the activists to transfer any humanitarian assistance to Gaza through Israel. In a separate statement Monday, the Israeli prime minister said the flotilla was “nothing but a demonstration of hypocrisy and lies … assisting the Hamas terrorist organization” while ignoring the region's horrors.
Special correspondents Sobelman and Abu Alouf reported from Jerusalem and Gaza City, respectively.