JERUSALEM: Pro-Palestinian activists on two foreign aid ships heading to the blockaded Gaza Strip were preparing to be boarded after the Israeli navy made radio contact with them on Friday.
As the Irish Saoirse (Gaelic for Freedom) and the Canadian Tahrir (Arabic for Liberation) began the final stage of their voyage to Gaza, they were contacted by the navy just before 1:00pm (1100 GMT) at some 50 nautical miles from the shore, organisers said.
“At 10.58 am (Irish time) we received an urgent call from Dr Fintan Lane, National Coordinator of Irish Ship to Gaza aboard the MV Saoirse, to say that two Israeli ships are rapidly approaching the Irish and Canadian boats,” organisers of the Irish boat said in a statement.
The first radio contact was made some 15 minutes later, when the two vessels were 48 nautical miles from the shore, it said.
Shortly afterwards, the Canadians also confirmed radio contact had been made, in a posting on Twitter. “Israeli war ship: ‘What is Tahrir’s final destination?’ Our response: ‘The betterment of mankind’,” they wrote.
The Israeli military confirmed they had made radio contact with both vessels, telling them they were about to enter an area “under a maritime security blockade.”
“The Israel navy advised the vessels that they may turn back at any point, thereby not breaking the maritime security blockade, or sailing to a port in Egypt or the port of Ashdod” in southern Israel, a statement said.
“The activists refused to cooperate,” it added.
Shortly afterwards, organisers of the Canadian boat said they had lost contact with the Tahrir. “Communications may have been jammed by Israeli military,” they tweeted.
The last time a boat tried to reach Gaza was in July when a French-flagged yacht, the last remaining boat of an earlier flotilla, was intercepted by the Israeli navy some 40 nautical miles off the coast.
The Irish boat is carrying 15 passengers and crew members, while the Canadian boat has 12 people on board, five of them journalists, and is carrying some $30,000 worth of medical aid and letters of solidarity, organisers said.
As they embarked on the final leg of their journey, those on board were readying themselves for an eventual interception by Israeli forces, Denis Kosseim, a Montreal-based spokesman for the Canadian Boat to Gaza campaign told AFP.
“Those on board have been instructed not to put up any resistance to the Israeli navy when it tries to intercept them,” he said.
“Everyone has signed a document in which they pledged not to put up any resistance should they be boarded by Israel,” he added.
Earlier, an Israeli military spokeswoman said the ships’ progress was being monitored and that the navy had “completed the necessary preparations to prevent them from reaching the Gaza Strip.”
On Thursday evening, Israeli warships came within six nautical miles of the two vessels, and Israeli spotter planes were observed overhead, said Fintan Lane, a coordinator of the Irish Ship to Gaza campaign.
But fears of an overnight boarding did not materialise.
Activists organised a major attempt to break the Israeli blockade in May 2010, when six ships led by the Turkish Mavi Marmara tried to reach Gaza.
Israeli troops stormed the Marmara, killing nine Turkish activists and sparked a diplomatic crisis with Ankara, which expelled the Israeli ambassador and has cut military ties with the Jewish state.
Earlier this year, a second flotilla tried to reach Gaza, but several ships were sabotaged, which activists blamed on Israel. Only the French-flagged yacht, the Dignity, was able to attempt the last leg of the journey but was stopped by the navy and those on board were deported.
Israel says its blockade is necessary to prevent weapons from entering the coastal territory, which is run by Hamas.
Two months ago, a UN report on the flotilla raid accused the Jewish state of acting with “excessive force” but found that its naval blockade on the coastal territory was legal.