The IDF announced this afternoon that “an Israeli Navy force intercepted, boarded, and took control of the cargo boat ‘Arion’ [renamed by the Free Gaza movement for this voyage the “Spirit of Humanity”] which was bearing the flag of Greece and was illegally attempting to enter the Gaza Strip/Gazan Coastal Waters”
Yes, the formal Israeli naval blockade of the Gaza Strip — announced on 3-4 January as the IDF began the ground phase of Operation Cast Lead against Gaza — is still in force, the IDF announcement confirmed: “Yesterday evening, the Israeli Navy contacted the boat while at sea, clarifying that it would not be permitted to enter Gazan coastal waters because of security risks in the area and the existing naval blockade. [But] Disregarding all warnings made, the cargo boat entered Gazan coastal waters. As a result of the actions taken by the boat crew, an Israeli Navy force intercepted, boarded, and took control of the boat, directing it towards Ashdod, Israel. No shots were fired during the boarding of the boat. The boat crew will be handed over to the appropriate authorities. Humanitarian goods found on board the boat will be transferred to the Gaza Strip, subject to authorization. The IDF Spokesperson Unit would like to emphasize that any organization or country that wishes to transfer humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip, can legally do so via the established crossings between Israel and the Gaza Strip with prior coordination”.
The Israeli Foreign Ministry said that the passengers and crew on board will be “checked by the immigration authorities”, then released.
AP reported that “The ship arrived at Ashdod port after nightfall”. It added that “The ship was flying a Greek flag, but no Greek citizens were aboard. The Greek government issued a statement saying it sent a message to Israel demanding that it release the ship, crew and passengers. Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said Israel was planning to free the crew and passengers. ‘Nobody wants to keep them here’, he said. ‘They will be released as soon as they are checked.” This AP report can be read in full here.
Agence France Presse £(AFP£) reported that “After the navy boarded the converted ferry it towed the vessel toward the nearby Israeli port of Ashdod, the spokesman said, adding that the activists on board would be handed over to authorities … Greece quickly protested the seizing of the Greek-flagged vessel, saying ‘we remonstrated with the Israeli side and asked for the ship, the crew and the passengers to be released immediately’, foreign ministry spokesman Grigoris Delavekouras said in a statement. ‘As we have said in the past, all legal activity by non-governmental organisations must enjoy freedom’, he said … On December 30, shortly after the Gaza war erupted, an Israeli navy vessel collided with a Free Gaza boat, almost sinking it, in what activists called a ‘deliberate ramming’. Earlier on Tuesday, the Free Gaza movement said that Israeli warships had surrounded the Spirit of Humanity and threatened to open fire if it did not turn around. At one point, the Israelis jammed the boat’s instruments, blocking their GPS, radar and navigation systems ‘in direct violation of international maritime law’, the group said. The Israeli foreign ministry said the boat’s owners had lied before departure from Cyprus about the vessel’s destination, saying it was bound for Port Said in Egypt. The ministry also said that under the 1993 autonomy accords struck with the Palestinians, Gaza’s territorial waters, like its land borders, were Israel’s responsibility”. The AFP report can be read in full here.
The latest Twitter message from the Free Gaza movement, sent about 730 PM Jerusalem time, said: “Spoke to Shlomo Dror who likes to scream. He insisted that Israel has right to inspect cargo even though Cyprus already inspected”.
Earlier Twitter messages said that the Free Gaza group was “Waiting to hear from attorneys about kidnapped passengers. Boat going to Ashdod … Boat towed. Passengers turned over to immigration, ironic since we don’t WANT to be in Israel.”
Before that, a Twitter message read: “They’re about to come on board, they’re about to come on board. Then the line went dead … They are 24 miles away from Gaza”.
The Green Party in the United States has released a statement quoting Cynthia McKinney, the Green Party’s 2008 candidate for President of the United States assaying that “This is an putrageous violation of international law against us. Our boat was not in Israeli waters, and we were on a human rights mission to the Gaza Strip … President Obama just told Israel to let in humanitarian and reconstruction supplies, and that’s exactly what we tried to do. We’re asking the international community to demand our release so we can resume our journey.” The Green Party added that “Ms. McKinney had earlier sent appeals to President Obama and the State
Department for assurances of protection for the relief mission. The Spirit of Humanity was sailing in international waters when it was seized”.
Five days ago (on 25 June), Cynthia McKinney posted a Twitter message that can be found in the chain here saying that “The Cyprus Port Authority has just noticed us that they will destroy the boats (for our safety, of course) to prevent us from sailing”.