Israel Navy intercepts Gaza-bound French vessel

13:20, July 20, 2011      

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by Gur Salomon, Susana Mendoza

Israel Navy soldiers on Tuesday intercepted a French yacht, the Dignite/Al Karama, which was sailing toward Gaza with the aim of breaching Israel's maritime blockade on the Palestinian enclave.

The navy boarded the yacht after it disregarded calls to divert its course and the troops did not encounter resistance from the passengers as they took over the vessel, an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) spokesman said.

Some 10 pro-Palestinian activists and six crew members had expected to reach the Gaza shore on Tuesday to protest the maritime blockade that Israel has imposed on the enclave since Hamas took control in 2007.

The Dignite/Al Karama was the sole remaining vessel of a 20- ship anti-blockade flotilla that disbanded in recent weeks due to bureaucratic and technical delays. Israeli diplomats previously predicted that no violence would ensue if the navy was forced to board the craft.

Navy commandos boarded the vessel shortly after IDF chief Lt.- Gen. Benny Gantz issued the order Tuesday noon, and then towed it to Israel's southern port of Ashdod.

A Navy ship had shadowed the yacht when it was still some 50 miles away from the Gaza coast.

A naval officer initially radioed the boat's crew prior to boarding, announcing that they were heading toward a blockaded area, and suggested transferring their Gaza-bound cargo via land crossings or the Ashdod port, the IDF said in a statement.

The navy sent three ships to surround the French vessel, when it did not heed calls to change course and continued sailing toward Gaza.

Prior to the troop's boarding, an activist aboard the vessel told the navy that passengers were unarmed, and declared that they were heading to the Strip, the Ha'aretz daily reported.

"The soldiers took every precaution necessary to avoid causing harm to the activists while ensuring their safety," the IDF said in a statement.

The French vessel departed from a Greek port on Saturday evening, declaring Alexandria, Egypt, as its destination. The previous week, Athens officially banned the Gaza-bound flotilla from leaving the country's ports, explaining that the decision was made in light of concerns that a clash with the Israeli Navy may possibly end in bloodshed.

On Sunday night, the French boat approached Egypt's Port Said, and set sail to Gaza early Tuesday.

Free Gaza Movement Spokeswoman Greta Berlin called Israel's interception of the Gaza-bound vessel "illegal."

"We lost contact with the ship the moment Israeli soldiers illegally boarded it and kidnapped its passengers," Berlin told Xinhua over the telephone on Sunday.

She said she believed that the ship's passengers would be taken to Ashdod and charged with illegal entry into Israel. "It is very ironic because that's exactly what [the passengers] were trying to avoid," Berlin said.

A navy doctor was on hand to examine the activists, among them prominent French human rights activists, Army Radio reported.

Security sources said the Israel Police will question the passengers when they dock. They will then be transferred to a holding facility and processed by immigration officials prior to being deported to their respective home countries.

Israeli officials expressed satisfaction that the naval operation ended peacefully.

In a statement released immediately after the operation, Defense Minister Ehud Barak congratulated Gantz, Navy Commander Eliezer Merom and the soldiers who boarded the vessel for carrying out a "smooth takeover."

Barak noted that the "vigorous diplomatic action" taken by the Prime Minister's Office and the defense and foreign ministries succeeded in "thinning out" the number of vessels and activists that were planned to take part in the flotilla.

The Israel Navy had launched preparations to counter the flotilla months in advance, fearing a recurrence of an incident last May, when nine Turkish activists who sailed to Gaza as part of an international aid mission were killed in confrontation with commandos.

Considerable diplomatic efforts were also invested in persuading a host of European nations not to allow their citizens to participate in the flotilla, with Israel steadfastly describing it as a "provocation" initiated and led by left organizations that shun its legitimacy.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon last month called on the flotilla's organizers to rethink their plans.

Israel persists that its naval blockade is intended to prevent the smuggling of weapons and munitions to Hamas and other militant groups operating in Gaza.

On Sunday, IDF officials reiterated Israel's stance that any organization or country seeking to transfer goods to Gaza can do so through established land crossings.

Source: Xinhua
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