By ISABEL KERSHNER and MAJD AL WAHEIDI
OCT. 5, 2016
Photo: Palestinians gathered on Wednesday at a seaport in Gaza City to welcome the Zaytouna-Oliva, a yacht with an all-female crew that had tried to break Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip. Credit Mohammed Salem/Reuters
JERUSALEM — Their chances of reaching the shores of Gaza were never high: Thirteen women on a yacht hoping to breach the years-old sea blockade of the Hamas-run Palestinian coastal territory enforced by the Israeli Navy.
Naval officers boarded the yacht, the Zaytouna-Oliva, at dusk on Wednesday in international waters, after it had spent eight days at sea. It was searched and redirected toward the southern Israeli port of Ashdod.
No violence was reported on either side, though the website of the so-called Women’s Boat to Gaza said the peaceful mission had been “attacked by Israeli Occupation Forces.” Jamal Khoudari, the head of the Popular Committee Against the Siege, in Gaza, denounced the interception as “piracy against women.”
In a statement, the Israeli military said that “the visit and search of the vessel was uneventful.” A military official added that female military personnel were involved in the operation. Israel says the naval blockade is necessary to prevent weapons from being smuggled into the Gaza Strip, which is controlled by Hamas.
Once a common occurrence, international protest flotillas to Gaza became rare after a deadly confrontation in 2010 between Israeli commandos and a group of mostly Turkish activists aboard the Mavi Marmara, a passenger vessel that had tried to breach the blockade.
The Israeli commandos killed nine activists after being met with violent resistance. A 10th activist later died of his wounds. It was six years later before Israel and Turkey, former allies, agreed to restore full diplomatic ties.
The Zaytouna-Oliva left Barcelona and had made several stops before embarking on its final leg, from Italy, on Sept. 27. Among those on board: Mairead Corrigan Maguire, a 1976 Nobel peace laureate who is from Northern Ireland; Fauziah Hasan, a doctor from Malaysia; and Ann Wright, a retired United States Army colonel.
Ms. Maguire was among a group of 30 women, which included the feminist leader Gloria Steinem, who last year crossed the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea.
Early on Wednesday, the mission’s website reported that the boat was less than 100 nautical miles northwest of Gaza and was to arrive within 20 hours. Contact was lost by the afternoon, presumably as Israel jammed the yacht’s communications systems.
The participants had known the prospects of reaching Gaza were slim, but that the real point of the all-female mission was to draw international attention to the Palestinian enclave.
Before the Israeli takeover, Wendy Goldsmith, a Canadian member on board, told Al Jazeera, “At night, under the full moon, we sing songs, share stories about peaceful resistance and talk about our families. Laughter is a welcome companion. We recognize how blessed we are to be able to make this journey.” Ms. Goldsmith said she had originally planned to be a crew member on a second boat, the Amal II, but that it had suffered engine trouble and could not sail.
Dozens of Palestinians, mostly women, had gathered at Gaza’s small harbor on Wednesday in hopes of welcoming the foreign seafarers. Some said they were bored at home, with no electricity most hours of the day. Others said religious leaders in their mosques had asked them to come. One of the women, Isra Alareer, 34, followed updates on her phone, and said that the mission gave her hope that Gaza was not forgotten.
The day was punctuated by the boom of Israeli airstrikes against militant sites in Gaza. The strikes were retaliation for a rocket fired earlier from Gaza that had slammed into a residential street in the Israeli border town of Sderot, causing damage and panic but no injuries.
One woman, who identified herself as Um Bilal Zakaria, said she had come to the coast with her six children to escape the airstrikes near her home, thinking that the port would be safer. She said she had not heard about the flotilla.
Isabel Kershner reported from Jerusalem, and Majd Al Waheidi from Gaza City.