Two passenger boats sailing to Gaza, as part of the aid flotilla attacked by Israel on Monday, broke down at the same time and in the same way early in their voyage, prompting suspicions they may have been sabotaged.
Challenger I and Challenger II, carrying 36 activists from the Free Gaza campaign, were forced into dock in Cyprus on Friday evening when both their steering systems broke down on the journey from Heraklion in Crete, a campaign spokesperson said.
The problems emerged as Israel’s military establishment gave strong indications that clandestine attempts were made to sabotage some of the ships ahead of this week’s bloody confrontation, in which at least nine pro-Palestinian activists were killed.
Challenger II started taking on water after the bilge pump suddenly stopped working and an inspection of the vessel, which was forced to withdraw from the flotilla, revealed ‘very suspicious” faults, according to a spokesperson for Free Gaza, Greta Berlin.
Both boats were forced to radio distress signals to Cypriot ports and Berlin said the captain of Challenger I, Denis Healey, was ‘frightened that he was not going to be able to get the boat in”.
Once in port in northern Cyprus, he had to repair hydraulic lines on the boat. Challenger II had to pull alongside the main Turkish ship, the Mavi Marmara, 110km off the coast of Cyprus, to transfer its passengers before it limped into port.
Matan Vilnai, Israel’s deputy minister of defence, was asked by an Israel Radio interviewer whether there had not been a smarter alternative to direct assault. He answered that ‘all possibilities had been considered,” adding: ‘The fact is that there were less than the 10 ships that were due to participate in the flotilla.”
An unnamed Israeli Defence Force source said military planners had considered trying to stop the Mavi Marmara rather than board it but had decided against it because the Turkish ship was too fast.
Both Free Gaza boats had left Heraklion in Crete last Thursday and had been sailing for about 30 hours when the malfunctions happened, the Free Gaza group said.
Challenger II was eventually lifted out of the water at Limassol for inspection. ‘The inspector said it looked very suspicious and we are having it inspected again by another person today,” said Berlin. ‘It was very odd that this happened at the same time [on each ship] and in almost the same circumstances.”
There is one known precedent for naval sabotage by the Israelis. Flotilla 13, the elite naval commando unit that carried out Monday’s raid, reportedly blew up a ship named al-Awda (The Return) which was chartered by the Palestine Liberation Organisation in 1988 to dramatise the plight of Palestinian refugees. It sank in Limassol. —