The Al Marwa, a civilian ship that set sail last week, aimed to be the fourth boat to break the blockade of the Gaza Strip since the summer.
But the Israeli Navy contacted the vessel by radio and instructed it to turn around, which it did, said foreign ministry spokesman Andy David.
Israel withdrew troops and evacuated all Jewish inhabitants from Gaza in 2005, but it still controls the Mediterranean coastal access. Egypt controls the southern border of the Gaza Strip, while Israel controls access between Gaza and Israeli territory.
In recent months, three small vessels set sail from Cyprus on separate voyages carrying Palestinian and international activists from a U.S.-based group. Israel allowed them to land.
Foreign Ministry spokesman David said Israel was examining attempts to approach the Gaza Strip from the sea on a “case-by-case basis.”
“This was a big ship from a hostile entity. Libya has declared Israel to be its enemy,” he said. “There is a difference between [that] and a small yacht from Cyprus.”
Libya on Monday slammed what it called “terrorist, Zionist army” for preventing the Libyan ship from reaching Gaza.
The official Libyan news agency JANA in a statement said Israel had sent two ships, a fighter jet and a submarine to force the vessel to turn back.
Jamal Khoudari, a Palestinian lawmaker who is leading the campaign against the Gaza blockade, encouraged Arab states not to despair. He said other aid ships would soon be sent from Qatar and Turkey.
Since the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip last year, rocket attacks from Gaza into Israel have been commonplace, and Israel has allowed only humanitarian aid into Gaza. Periodically, it also has closed the goods crossing points, citing security precautions when terrorists are launching rockets at Israel.
The passages were closed Monday following a weekend mortar attack on an Israeli army base near the Gaza Strip. Eight soldiers were wounded, including one who lost his leg. A rocket launched from inside Gaza landed in Israel on Monday, the army said.
An official at the Egyptian Embassy in Tel Aviv said the Arab League decided at a recent meeting to send aid to the Gaza Strip, but that it would have to go through the Israeli crossings.
But the arrival of any such aid must be arranged beforehand and not be presented as a surprise, said the official, who asked not to be named.
Israel’s Foreign Press Association has been pressing the government to open a crossing point used for individuals, to allow journalists to enter Gaza Strip. With exceptions for humanitarian cases, it has been closed for more than three weeks.
The Center for the Protection of Democracy in Israel expressed concern about preventing journalists from entering the Gaza Strip, calling the move a “serious and sustained blow to the freedom of the press.”
The group noted that Israeli reporters have on occasion in the past been prevented from entering Gaza because Israel is responsible for their security. But that did not apply in the case of foreign journalists.
David said that except for humanitarian cases, Israel was not willing to risk the lives of those who staff the crossing points at times of heightened security threat. He pointed out that the latest spate of violence began after Israel discovered and destroyed a tunnel inside Gaza evidently being prepared for an attack against Israel.
The government has forbidden Israeli journalists, including those with dual citizenship, to enter Gaza for more than a year. But an Israeli journalist who arrived in Gaza last month on one of the boats from Cyprus said on Monday Hamas had told her to leave for security reasons.
Amira Hass, known for her sympathetic coverage of the Palestinians, said she had hoped to stay in Gaza until January, the Associated Press reported.
Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai said at the weekend Israel was “getting closer to a wide-scale [security] operation in the Gaza Strip.”
Israel and Hamas both say they are committed to upholding a truce to which they agreed in June, and which is due to expire in a little over two weeks’ time. But Vilnai said that Palestinian “provocations” were leaving Israel with little choice.