The Israel Navy on Saturday took control of a Swedish-owned, Finnish-flagged ship carrying pro-Palestinian activists toward Gaza, and towed the vessel to Ashdod.

Despite earlier claims by activists that they were bringing humanitarian supplies to Gaza, no such items were immediately found on board the Estelle, the IDF said. But it added that it was still unloading the ship’s cargo.

But Mikael Lofgren, a spokesman for the Swedish group Ship to Gaza that organized the voyage, told The Jerusalem Post that the vessel carried musical instruments, theatrical equipment, wheelchairs, children’s books, 600 soccer balls and 41 tons of cement.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu praised the IDF operation to enforce the blockade on the Gaza Strip, reiterating that it was in keeping with international law.

“Even the people who were on the ship know that there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Their entire objective was to create a provocation and blacken Israel’s name. If human rights were really important to these activists, they would sail to Syria,” he said.

“We will continue to take strong and determined action to defend our borders,” Netanyahu said.

The 53-meter ship set sail in mid-June in the north of Sweden with some 20 activists aboard, Lofgren said.

It then spent close to three months traveling around Europe, he said. It stopped in 20 ports, including nine in Sweden, before heading toward Gaza on October 7, he said.

A few days ago, 10 additional activists took a speed boat from Greece and boarded the ship on the open sea, Lofgren and Adam Keller of Gush Shalom said.

The new group included three Israelis – Elik Elhanan, Reut Mor and Yonathan Shapira – according to Keller. Five parliament members from Sweden, Norway, Spain and Greece also boarded the Estelle with them, he said.

Israel on Friday warned the activists, in a message sent via the Finnish Foreign Ministry, that they would be taken into custody and possibly prosecuted if they did not turn the vessel around, Keller said.

The IDF said the ship was invited to head to Ashdod instead, with a pledge that its cargo would be transferred to Gaza via a land crossing.

But the activists refused all Israeli requests to divert their course, and had declared that their intention was to violate Israel’s naval blockade of the Gaza Strip, the IDF said.

“When those on board made it clear they had no intention of cooperating or accepting the invitation to arrive at Ashdod Port, it was decided to take control of the ship and bring it to Ashdod,” the IDF said.

Lofgren said he last spoke with the ship around 10:15 a.m. Central European Time, when he had a conversation with an Israeli on board, Dror Feiler.

“He told me that he saw five or six military vessels coming closer to the Estelle. Shortly after that we had a break [in the line]. I phoned him again. He said, ‘Now they are boarding.’ He saw some soldiers with masks and on their faces coming up on the sides of the Estelle. Then the satellite connection went off. Since then, we have not had any contact with anyone on the ship,” Lofgren said.

Naval commandos took over the ship without the use of force, and offered the activists food and water, the IDF added. The commandos also checked that all of the activists were in good health, the IDF said.

The activists will be handed over to the Israel Police and the Interior Ministry, which is expected to begin deportation proceedings against foreign nationals.

The IDF Spokesman’s Office stressed that anyone seeking to pass on humanitarian aid to Gaza is able to do so legally at any time via land crossings to the Strip in coordination with Israel.

But Lofgren said that goods and people should be able to travel freely in and out of Gaza, including by sea.

While there could be security reasons to impose a naval blockade on the area, Lofgren said, obviously in this case, a blockade has not worked given that military weapons have been smuggled into Gaza.

The only success of the blockade so far, he said, “is to increase suspicion and bitterness on both sides.”

“I must say that I find this kind of military effort to stop the ship strange,” Lofgren said. He noted that he had traveled thousands of miles and that there had been many options to inspect the ship to ensure that there were no weapons on board.

The group even offered to have international inspectors, such as from the UN, board the ship to inspect it, Lofgren said.

Meanwhile, Egypt has lifted all restrictions on the passage of construction material to Gaza through the Sinai-Gaza border, Israel Radio reported on Saturday.

In July 2011, the UN’s Palmer Commission published a report on the IDF’s interception in May 2010 of the Turkish protest flotilla, and ruled that Israel’s security blockade on Gaza “is both legal and appropriate.”

Since 2001, Palestinian terrorists in Gaza have fired more than 10,000 rockets at southern Israeli cities, towns and villages, leading Israel to impose the blockade to prevent the entry of weapons and material that could be used to build weapons.

Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.

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