Israeli navy seizes control of Gaza-bound ship

An Israeli military naval ship sails off the port of Ashdod, Israel,Tuesday, July 19, 2011. The Israeli military said Tuesday it has made initial contact with a ship attempting to break Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip and warned the vessel it is approaching an off-limits naval zone.
AP Photo/Ariel Schalit

JERUSALEM - Israeli naval commandos on Tuesday seized control of a French ship attempting to break Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip, reporting no resistance during the takeover in international waters.

The navy boarded the ship after the pro-Palestinian activists on board ignored calls to change course.

The military had warned it would stop any attempt to break the sea blockade of Gaza, which Israel imposed four years ago in what it says is a measure to prevent arms smuggling to Gaza's ruling Hamas militant group.

It said the vessel, the Dignity al-Karama, would be taken to a southern Israeli port, Ashdod. The international passengers are likely to face deportation.

Last year, Israeli naval commandos clashed with knife and club-wielding activists on a Turkish ship trying to reach Gaza, killing nine Turkish activists. Both sides have said they acted in self defense.

The deadly clash drew harsh international criticism, forcing Israel to ease its land blockade of Gaza. But the naval embargo has remained intact.

Since the deadly May 2010 takeover, the navy has intercepted two blockade-busting boats without incident. But it had been preparing for months for the arrival of a new flotilla, saying it had adopted new tactics in hopes of avoiding bloodshed.

The Dignity al-Karama was the only ship remaining from a larger protest flotilla that had hoped to sail weeks ago but was blocked by Greek authorities.

The France-based Platform Palestine group, one of the organizers, said the Israeli takeover "clearly shows the military logic of Israeli politics, which only speaks the language of force." It said it had no contact with anyone on the boat.

In a text message sent to reporters, the Hamas government in Gaza condemned the seizing of the boat.

Sixteen people, including pro-Palestinian activists from France, Canada and Sweden, journalists and three crew members, are aboard the French-based ship. They have said they had no aid on board and that their mission was meant to make a "political statement" against the Israeli blockade.

A France-based spokesman for a group called "A French Boat for Gaza," Maxime Guimberteau, said he was in contact with activists aboard the ship earlier Tuesday and they told him that four Israeli navy ships had surrounded the ship.

He said the vessel was about 40 miles (65 kilometers) off Gaza in international waters in the Mediterranean and that his conversation with the boat was cut off.

Israel imposed the embargo in 2007 after Hamas militants seized control of Gaza. It says the measure is needed to prevent weapons from reaching Hamas, but critics say the blockade has failed to weaken the militant group and instead has hurt the territory's economy, collectively punishing its 1.6 million people.

With the land blockade greatly eased, large amounts of consumer goods now flow into Gaza. But restrictions remain on the entrance of construction materials, which are sorely needed to repair damage caused by an Israeli military offensive two years ago. Israel says items like metal, cement and glass could be diverted for military purposes, and has approved individual construction projects in coordination with the international community.

In its warning, the navy notified the ship that any supplies it might have on board could be transferred legally to Gaza through an Israeli port and then across Israeli-controlled land crossings.