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Middle East
Gaza protest boat forced into Israeli port
French yacht made to dock at Ashdod after it was boarded by Israeli naval commandos.
Last Modified: 19 Jul 2011 17:02

Israeli naval commandos seized control of a French ship attempting to break its blockade of the Gaza Strip and towed it into Ashdod port, reporting no resistance during the takeover in international waters.

The ship Dignite-Al Karama was brought into Ashdod on Tuesday by Israeli naval ships, Al Jazeera's Tony Birtley reported from the Israeli harbour.

"They apprehended the boat about 40km off the coast of Gaza. They [the Israelis] conducted what they called a "calm boarding". No violence, no resistance, everything was peaceful.

"Now, the activists are held in a building in the port where they are going through various interviews. Their boat is going to be thoroughly checked for weapons and cargo, which the Greek captain said he did not have on board.

"Then they will presumably be handed over to the Israeli immigration department and then presumably be deported," our correspondent said."

Earlier, Israeli naval vessels had told activists they would take control of the boat unless it left the area.

The Israeli navy had said it was in a dialogue with the activists on board in an attempt to dissuade them from continuing on their route.

"In accordance with Israel government directives, and as previously stressed, the Israel Navy will allow the organisers and passengers to re-track at any point, prior to the boarding of Israel Navy soldiers," the statement said.

The 17-passenger boat had declared an Egyptian port as its destination when it left Greek waters on Sunday, but activists on board later said they were redirecting towards the Gaza Strip and hoped to arrive by Tuesday afternoon.

"This 'little' boat symbolises the determination of the international solidarity movement to break the blockade on Gaza and express its support for the 1.6 million Palestinians imprisoned there since 2007," a statement released from the boat said.

"We're cleaning ourselves up a little bit before arriving. Morale here is like the sky and sea - very good," wrote French activists on board, adding in English: "Gaza, off we go, stay connected!!!"

'Message of peace'

The boat was originally part of a 10-ship flotilla which had been due to sail for Gaza at the end of June.

The Gaza Strip has been under an Israeli blockade since 2007 when the Palestinian group Hamas seized power in the territory. Israeli says the siege is intended to prevent Hamas from receiving arms and funds.

But Palestinians and their supporters consider the blockade illegal and say it has stunted the economic development of the territory, most of whose 1.5 million residents rely on aid to survive.

On Monday, Israeli deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon said Israel would prevent any attempt to breach the naval blockade on Gaza.

"If this boat is on its way to Gaza, which is a breach of international maritime law, and tries a provocative act - yes, we shall intercept it," he told reporters in Jerusalem.

"But I assure you we shall try our best to make those on board very comfortable."

Thomas Sommer-Houdeville, a French activist who spoke to the AFP news agency from on board the boat on Monday evening, said the vessel was only carrying a "symbolic message of peace and hope and love".

Israel, he said, had no reason to intercept it.

"We hope that they will not, we don't have a plan but we have a peaceful humanitarian mission. We are a peaceful boat flying a French flag," he said.

Hamas condemned the seizure with spokesman Ismail Rudwan describing it as "piracy, a war crime and a violation of the principles of human rights".

Israeli commandos killed nine Turkish activists when they stormed a Gaza-bound flotilla in the Mediterranean last year.

Source:
Al Jazeera and agencies
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