Israel stops French boat headed to Gaza

July 19, 2011

JERUSALEM — The Israeli navy intercepted a French boat carrying pro-Palestinian activists as the vessel attempted to breach Israel’s naval blockade of the Gaza Strip on Tuesday, boarding it after the skipper ignored radio calls to change course, the military said.

An army spokeswoman said that naval commandos seized control of the French-flagged yacht Dignite/Al Karama without resistance.

The vessel was being led to the port of Ashdod in southern Israel, the spokeswoman said. Sixteen people were reported to be aboard, including three crew members and three journalists.

Activists had reported earlier that their vessel was surrounded by at least three Israeli navy ships in international waters some 40 miles off the coast of Gaza.

The French yacht was the lone remnant of a planned 10-vessel flotilla to the Gaza Strip, whose boats were mostly blocked in Greek ports after authorities banned their departure to Gaza.

Despite the ban, the Dignite sailed Saturday from the Greek island of Kastellorizo. It declared its destination to be Alexandria, Egypt, according to Greta Berlin of the Free Gaza Movement.

Flotillas to Gaza have drawn significant global attention since last year, when an Israeli naval commando raid on a Turkish ship leading an aid flotilla led to violent clashes with activists on board and the deaths of nine people.

Israel says it is maintaining the naval blockade to prevent the smuggling of arms to the Gaza Strip, which is ruled by the militant Islamist group Hamas. An army statement said that any group wishing to transfer supplies to Gaza could do so through “established land crossings.”

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