Israeli Navy soldiers seized control of the Gaza-bound ship Estelle, which was seeking to breach Israel's naval blockade on Gaza, the army's Spokesperson's Unit reported at around 11:40 am on Saturday.
The rerouted vessel arrived in the Ashdod port shortly after 9 pm. An initial search did not find any humanitarian aid supplies aboard the ship, the IDF said.
- Report: Families of flotilla victims sue Israel
- Finland: Israel warns of action against Gaza ship
- Op-ed: Put flotilla behind us
The army said the soldiers boarded the Swedish-owned, Finnish-flagged ship which was carrying pro-Palestinian activists – including three Israelis – in accordance with the government's decision and international law, after diplomatic efforts to prevent the vessel from reaching Gaza's shore had failed.
The raid was conducted by commandoes from the elite Shayatet-13 unit after Navy missile ships surrounded the Estelle.
"When the (ship's) passengers made it clear that they would not cooperate or accept the invitation to sail to the Ashdod Port, it was decided to seize the vessel and lead it to the Ashdod Port," the army said in a statement.
"The Navy force operated as planned to guarantee the safety of the soldiers and passengers on the deck. The soldiers did not use force while seizing the ship."
The passengers were to be handed over to police and immigration authorities once the ship reached Ashdod.
3 Israelis aboard ship
According to the Gush Shalom organization, three Israeli citizens were aboard the Estelle. The pro-Palestinian activists – Elik Elhanan, Reut Mor and Yonatan Shapira – were brought to the ship on a motorboat that arrived from Greece.
'Siege is inhuman and immoral.' Activists on Estelle ship (Photo: EPA)
"I want to say that we are here to give a message of solidarity to the people of Gaza," Mor was quoted by CNN as saying from aboard the ship.
"The siege is inhuman and immoral, and this is the reason – as non-violent peaceful activists – (we) decide(d) to risk ourselves and break the siege."
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lauded the IDF's operation and blasted the ship's passengers.
"Even the people aboard the ship know that there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza, and that their entire goal is to provoke and slander Israel. If these activists really cared about human rights, they would have sailed to Syria.
"We will continue protecting our borders with might and determination," he added.
Victoria Strand, a Stockholm-based spokeswoman for the campaign, told AFP earlier that the Estelle had "come under attack" shortly after being approached by Israeli vessels.
Before the ship was taken over, former Israeli national Dror Feiler, who took part in the sail, was quoted by pro-Palestinian media outlets as saying that the ship was "attacked at 10:15 (am)." According to him, six Israeli vessels surrounded the Estelle and masked soldiers attempted to board it. He claimed the attempt to intercept the ship was conducted in international waters.
The activists said the 53-meter vessel carried two olive trees, 41 tons of cement, books, toys and medical equipment.
IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz has instructed the military Advocate General, Maj.-Gen. Danny Efroni, to explore legal options against the activists.
A senior Defense Ministry official said Israel "has a right to operate at sea to prevent the smuggling of arms to terror organizations."
He called the Estelle passengers "provocateurs who are drive by hatred for Israel."
The official stressed that "there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza. More than 1,500 trucks carrying tons of goods enter Gaza each week through the land crossings."
The IDF stressed that the preparations to intercept the ship were conducted only after diplomatic efforts to stop the sail had failed.
The army said this week that the activists want to create a provocation and draw international media attention. Therefore, the army said, it plans to document the raid on the ship from several angles.
The Estelle is the latest in a series of activist-manned boats challenging Israel's blockade on Gaza, imposed after the terror group Hamas seized power of the coastal sliver in 2007. It left Naples, Italy, on Oct. 7.
AFP, AP contributed to the report