Estelle is a ship carrying pro-Palestinian activists seeking to breach Israel’s crippling blockade on Gaza has come under attack shortly after being approached by Israeli vessels, a spokeswoman told AFP on Saturday.
Estelle’s media coordinator Mikael Loffgren told Al-Jazeera the soldiers who embarked the ship were masked.
“The Estelle is now under attack — I have just had a message from them by phone,” Victoria Strand, a Stockholm-based spokeswoman for the Ship to Gaza Sweden campaign told AFP.
“Some time ago, they said that they had military ships following them, but we don’t know exactly what they mean” when they say they were attacked, she said of the vessel.
The Estelle is a part of the Free Gaza Movement, which is dedicated to breaking the Israeli blockade of Gaza, notably through sea channels with the Freedom Flotilla Coalition.
Last week, a declassified document revealed that Israel had put Gaza on steady diet during the most violent stages of its siege between 2005 and 2008. Ostensibly to avoid malnutrition in the strip, Israel’s Health Ministry devised a nutritional “red line”, a minimal calorie intake the Israeli army would guarantee as it cut imports to Gaza by nearly 75 percent.
In 2008, the International Committee of the Red Cross revealed a “progressive deterioration in food security for up to 70 per cent of Gaza’s population,” forcing people to cut household expenditures to “survival levels”. “Chronic malnutrition is on a steadily rising trend and micronutrient deficiencies are of great concern,” said the ICRC report.
The siege continues to leave the strip in economic tatters, with unemployment running rampant, and some resorting desperately to self-immolation in recent weeks to protest rapidly declining living conditions.
The Israeli military confirmed that navy vessels were in the vicinity of the MV Estelle but denied the ship had been attacked or boarded.
“The Israeli navy has attempted to make initial contact with them, but they have not answered and nothing further has happened at this stage,” a spokeswoman said.
Asked whether any attempt had been made to stop or board the Estelle, she said: “Not at the moment.”
However, an Israeli military source had previously told The Jerusalem Post that the navy was preparing to intercept the boat, and a foreign ministry spokeswoman told the newspaper Israel would not allow the vessel to reach Gaza. Israel justifies its crippling siege of the Gaza Strip as a means to prevent weapon smuggling.
The boat’s cargo, listed on the flotilla’s website, includes cement, wheel chairs, crutches, toys, musical instruments and 300 footballs.
Responding to Israel’s UN ambassador Ron Prosor’s letter to the UN urging the world body to stop the flotilla, the activists said they welcomed further inspections of their cargo by the UN.
“What we refuse to accept is something which also the UN and the majority of the international community oppose: the illegal and in a humanitarian perspective devastating siege of the Gaza Strip,” they said in a statement.
In addition to its humanitarian cargo, the boat is also carrying a number of activists, including five European lawmakers from Spain, Sweden, Greece and Norway.
“The claim for bread, independence, freedom and democracy is not only by peoples facing military occupation or expansionism. It now concerns all of southern Europe…a red thread links Greece to other countries and people who fight,” said Dimitris Kodelas, one of the Greek politicians on board.
The passengers have undergone non-violent training in case Israel’s military boards the vessel. They have signed a pledge to act peacefully even if their lives are threatened, a statement on the group’s website says.
The first Freedom Flotilla in May 2010 ended in tragedy when nine Turkish nationals were killed by Israeli commandos boarded the Turkish-flagged Mavi Marmara, the lead ship, as it tried to break through the blockade. Some were shot at point-blank range, according to Turkish investigations.
A Turkish court prosecutor called for nine life sentences for four senior Israeli commanders each over the killings. If found guilty, the court could issue arrest warrants against them.
A second attempt to break the blockade in mid-2011 with a coalition of ships setting sail from Athens failed after Greek authorities intercepted the boats, banning their departure and towing back into port those who tried to leave.
According to Amjad al-Shawwa, director of the Gaza network of NGOs, the activists are demonstrating that “the Palestinian people are not facing this Israeli blockade alone as there are free people in the world who stand by their side and support them as they demand freedom, justice and human rights.”
Muhsin Abu Ramadan, chairman of the board of Gaza NGOs, said the activists were risking their lives by confronting Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza because they opposed tyranny and oppression.
“The Gaza Strip has the right to a safe water passage and to be freed from this blockade. Those activists are the ones who expose the Israeli violations,” Abu Ramadan said.
(AFP, Ma’an, Al-Akhbar,SaebPress)