Jerusalem – The Israeli military intercepted activists sailing toward Gaza on Friday, boarding their two small boats in international waters and leading them instead to the Israeli port of Ashdod.
The episode ended with no reports of violence or injuries. The encounter was being watched intensely after the military’s raid of a flotilla last year left nine activists dead and led to widespread condemnation of Israel.
The two boats, one Canadian and the other Irish, carried 27 pro-Palestinian activists, journalists and crew members from nine countries who were challenging Israel’s maritime blockade of the Palestinian enclave. The military had made clear that it would not allow the boats to reach Gaza, which is governed by the Islamic militant group Hamas.
The Israeli Navy initially notified the boats that they were en route to an area under blockade and advised them to turn back, or to sail to a port in Egypt or Israel, the military said in a statement.
Shortly afterward, an Israeli military spokeswoman said the boats had been boarded.
The latest attempt to breach the blockade led to a public relations battle, much of it waged on social media, to support the two sides’ opposing narratives. Israel says it maintains the blockade to prevent weapons from entering Gaza, where they can be turned on Israel; the activists say the blockade punishes too many innocent Palestinians.
Backers of the activists posted updates on Twitter, using the hash tag #FreedomWaves, while the Israeli government used #provocatilla.
One posting from the military said “every precaution” had been taken to ensure the safety of the activists.
A military spokeswoman said the boats docked in Ashdod before midnight. There the activists were to be handed over to the police and immigration authorities. They were expected to be questioned, then deported.
The two boats sailed from a Turkish port on Wednesday, four months after the last international flotilla to Gaza was stalled by the Greek authorities, who held some vessels in port. Two other boats, including the Irish boat intercepted on Friday, were damaged under mysterious circumstances. The protesters alleged sabotage.
Hoping to avoid a repeat of that experience, the organizers of the miniflotilla kept their plans secret until they left Turkey for international waters.
The Israeli authorities view the efforts to break the blockade as provocations intended to embarrass Israel and undermine its security. In May 2010, Israeli commandos raided a large flotilla and fatally shot nine protesters — eight Turkish citizens and an American citizen of Turkish descent — after meeting violent resistance on the deck of a Turkish passenger vessel.
This time there was little expectation of a violent confrontation. An organizer on the Canadian boat, Ehab Lotayef, a Canadian electrical engineer of Egyptian origin, said in a video message on Wednesday after leaving Turkey that the participants “are not going to challenge Israel physically.”
“We are a peaceful mission that is committed to the safety of the personnel on board” the two boats, Mr. Lotayef said. The goal is “to say that the blockade is illegal and inhumane,” he added.
When the Israeli Navy contacted the Canadian boat and asked for its destination, Mr. Lotayef first replied, “The conscience of humanity,” then, “The betterment of mankind,” according to a news release from the activists.
Israel contends that the maritime blockade of Gaza is in accordance with international law. Its position is backed by the Palmer report, a United Nations review of Israel’s 2010 raid published in September that found the blockade of Gaza to be legal and appropriate.
Fintan Lane, the organizer of the Irish boat, rejected the Palmer report, saying in a statement that “the report itself acknowledges that it was ‘not asked to make determinations of the legal issues’ associated with the blockade.” Its “legal speculations have been comprehensively repudiated,” he said.
Yigal Palmor, the spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, shot back, saying, “They can reject anything they want,” and noting that the Palmer report was adopted by the United Nations secretary general.
He said the necessity of the blockade was underlined by the firing of dozens of rockets from Gaza in the past week. One hit south of Ashdod on Friday night, the military said, but caused no damages or injuries. The longer-range rockets are imported to Gaza.
Israel formally imposed the maritime blockade in early January 2009, during its three-week military offensive against Hamas, though other restrictions have been in place since 2007.
A land blockade has been eased under international pressure since the deadly raid on the Turkish-led flotilla. Goods flow into Gaza across the land crossings with Israel, though exports out of Gaza are still severely restricted for security reasons, according to Israel. The Egyptian authorities recently reopened the Rafah crossing, on the Egypt-Gaza border, for passengers, but travel in and out of Gaza is still limited.