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Israel navy takes over protest ship bound for Gaza

Officials say the takeover occurred without the kind of violence and bloodshed that erupted last year when nine Turkish activists in a protest flotilla were killed by Israeli commandos. The boat is rerouted to Israel's Ashdod port.

July 19, 2011|By Edmund Sanders
  • The French vessel Dignite-Al Karama, trailed by small Israeli navy vessels, is brought toward the port of Ashdod after it was seized by Israeli sailors.
The French vessel Dignite-Al Karama, trailed by small Israeli navy vessels,… (Jim Hollander / EPA )

Reporting from Jerusalem — Israeli naval vessels Tuesday seized a French-flagged protest boat carrying 16 pro-Palestinian passengers as it attempted to break through Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip.

Israeli officials said the takeover occurred without the kind of violence and bloodshed that erupted last year when nine Turkish activists on a ship in a protest flotilla were shot and killed by Israeli commandos who came under attack by passengers as the troops dropped onto the vessel from helicopters.

The latest protest ship, called Dignite-Al Karama, was rerouted to Israel's Ashdod port, where passengers and crew were detained. Israel said it would transfer any humanitarian supplies carried by the ship to Gaza by land, but passengers told Israeli soldiers in a radio communication that they had no cargo.

Israeli officials expressed relief that the takeover ended without resistance but condemned the protest vessel as a provocation. After last year's raid, which led to international criticism over Israel's use of deadly force, Israel relaxed restrictions on the importation of most household goods into Gaza, though construction materials are still limited.

Government officials defended the naval blockade as necessary to ensure that weapons and fighters are not smuggled into the seaside enclave, which is controlled by the militant Islamic group Hamas.

Protest organizers, however, said Israel's blockade violates international law and has crippled Gaza's economy.

"As long as the Palestinians will not have their freedom of movement and exchange, particularly between the West Bank and Gaza, we will continue our campaigns and nonviolent actions to lift the blockade of Gaza," read a statement Tuesday from organizers of what had once been planned to be a flotilla of protest boats.

The French yacht was carrying citizens from several European nations and two Israelis, including a journalist from Haaretz newspaper. Passengers could not be reached for comment, and telephone and Internet services on board were blocked by Israel.

The boat is the last remnant of the flotilla that got underway several months ago and included 15 boats and as many as 1,500 activists, Americans among them.

But the flotilla was largely headed off in Greece, where the Greek government — at the behest of Israel — prevented boats from leaving its ports and intercepted one ship that attempted to sail without permission.

Flotilla organizers also accused Israel of secretly sabotaging two vessels.

Most activists gave up and flew to their home countries. But on Sunday, Dignite passengers left Greece, declaring they were heading toward Alexandria, Egypt. En route, the captain changed direction and made for Gaza.

edmund.sanders@latimes.com

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