(Reuters) – Pro-Palestinian activists aboard a six-ship convoy sailing for the Gaza Strip have ignored orders by the Israeli navy to turn back, an Israeli official said Monday.
The official, who declined to be named, said Israeli naval vessels told the activists by radio that their only other option was to head for the Israeli port of Ashdod to unload the some 10,000 tonnes of aid, which Israel would then transfer to Gaza.
“We communicated with them using the radio, clarifying that they are heading toward an area that is closed to maritime traffic,” the official said.
The convoy, led by a Turkish vessel with 600 people on board, set off in international waters off Cyprus Sunday in defiance of an Israeli-led blockade of the Gaza Strip and warnings that it would be intercepted.
“We told them that they are welcome to dock in Israel where all their humanitarian goods will be transferred to the Gaza Strip,” the official said. “The flotilla ignored the warnings.”
Live video footage from one of the boats showed activists wearing life vests and one said he could see Israeli naval vessels in the vicinity. He said the Israeli navy had contacted the ship’s captain and ordered him to turn back.
Three Israeli naval vessels set out from Haifa to meet the convoy, a journalist aboard one of the ships said.
Israel has said it would prevent the convoy from reaching the Gaza Strip, which is run by the Islamist Hamas group.
Hamas has been preparing to receive the convoy at the small harbor in the city of Gaza.
The activists face arrest and deportation, and their cargo will be confiscated and examined before a possible transfer by Israel to Gaza, Israeli military officials have said.
Israel has set up a holding camp for the activists at the coastal city of Ashdod.
The flotilla was organized by pro-Palestinian groups and a Turkish human rights organization. Turkey has urged Israel to allow it safe passage and says the 10,000 tonnes of aid the convoy is carrying is humanitarian.
Israel and Egypt tightened a blockade on Gaza after Hamas took over the territory in 2007. Israel launched a devastating military offensive in Gaza in December 2008 with the aim of halting daily rocket fire toward its cities.
Most of the 1.5 million Palestinians living in Gaza rely on aid, blaming Israel for imposing restrictions on the amount and type of goods it allows into the territory.
The United Nations and Western powers have urged Israel to ease its restrictions to prevent a humanitarian crisis. They have been urging Israel to let in concrete and steel to allow for postwar reconstruction.
Israel denies there is a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, saying food, medicine and medical equipment are allowed in regularly. It says the restrictions are necessary to prevent weapons and materials that could be used to make them from reaching Hamas.
(Reporting by Joseph Nasr, Jihan Abdallah and Alastair Macdonald in Jerusalem, Michele Kambas in Cyprus and Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza; Writing by Joseph Nasr)