JERUSALEM — The Israeli navy made its first contact with a flotillacarrying hundreds of pro-Palestinian activists and thousands of tons of supplies for Gaza shortly before midnight on Sunday, surprising the boats in international waters, according to activists on one vessel.
Israel has vowed not to let the flotilla reach the shores of Gaza, where the Islamic militant group Hamas holds sway, putting the activists and the Israelis on a high-profile public relations collision course. Named the Freedom Flotilla and led by the pro-Palestinian Free Gaza Movement and a Turkish organization, Insani Yardim Vakfi, the convoy of six cargo and passenger boats represents the most ambitious attempt yet to break Israel’s three-year blockade of the Palestinian coastal enclave.
Three Israeli navy missile boats left the Haifa naval base in northern Israel a few minutes after 9 p.m. local time, planning to intercept the flotilla.
After asking the captains of the boats to identify themselves, the navy told them they were approaching a blockaded area and asked them either to proceed to the Israeli port of Ashdod, north of Gaza, or to turn around and go back to their countries of origin.
The activists responded that they would continue toward their destination, Gaza.
Speaking by satellite phone from the Challenger 1 boat, which has foreign legislators and other high-profile figures on board, a Free Gaza Movement leader, Huwaida Arraf, said, “We communicated to them clearly that we are unarmed civilians. “We asked them not to use violence.”
Earlier Sunday, Ms. Arraf said the boats would keep trying to move forward “until they either disable our boats or jump on board.”
Flotilla organizers flotilla had said they expected to confront the Israelis on Monday morning, in an effort to avoid an encounter in the dark.
Israel insists that there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza, contrary to grim reports of the international organizations operating in the area. It says that the blockade is necessary because Hamas tries to smuggle weapons into the territory, sometimes by sea. But it has offered to transfer the 10,000 tons of aid on the ships from Ashdod to Gaza through official Israeli-controlled land crossings.
“If they were really interested in the well being of the people of Gaza,” said an Israeli government spokesman, Mark Regev, said in a statement, “they would have accepted the offers of Egypt or Israel to transfer humanitarian aid to the people of Gaza, along with the other 15 thousand tons sent every week. Instead they have chosen a cheap political stunt.”
The flotilla organizers dismissed the Israeli offer as “ridiculous and offensive.” In a statement over the weekend they said that the blockade and the “official channels” were “directly causing the humanitarian crisis in the first place.