ASHDOD, Israel: Israel commandos Tuesday boarded a French yacht heading for Gaza in defiance of its naval blockade, and escorted it to shore after what the military said was an uneventful takeover.
An army spokesman confirmed the interception of the MV Dignite/Al-Karama took place without violence and said that the crew and passengers were put on an Israeli naval vessel headed to the southern port of Ashdod.
“Navy soldiers boarded the Al-Karama in an effort to stop it from breaking the maritime security blockade on the Gaza Strip,” a military statement said, indicating the move came “after all diplomatic channels had been exhausted and continuous calls to the vessel had been ignored.”
Four hours later, the yacht was escorted into Ashdod by three Israeli warships and the passengers were taken off for interrogation.
The military said the 16 people on board, three of them journalists, would be questioned by police then transferred to the Interior Ministry and immigration authorities, with the expectation they would be deported.
Eleven of them are French, while others are from Sweden, Canada, Greece and Israel.
The journalists are Amira Hass, a veteran Israeli columnist who covers Palestinian affairs for the left-leaning Haaretz newspaper, and the other two work for Al-Jazeera television.
Last month, Israel pledged that foreign journalists covering the arrival of what had been expected to be a 10-ship flotilla to Gaza would not face the same sanction as other participants.
The yacht charted a course for Gaza despite Israeli warnings that it would intercept the only boat remaining from the larger flotilla that had been due to sail for Gaza at the end of June.
The Dignite/Al-Karama had hoped to reach Gaza around midday but was blocked in the early morning by at least three Israeli ships which made clear it would not be allowed to reach Gaza.
The yacht had sailed from the Greek island of Kastellorizo Saturday evening after a troubled stay in Greece, after Athens imposed a ban on the departure of any ships involved in the flotilla.
“The government neutralized the flotilla through systematic diplomatic action,” a statement from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said Tuesday.
“Israel will continue to allow the transfer of goods and food to the Gaza Strip, but will maintain the maritime blockade of the territory to prevent the flow of arms and missiles, which are fired daily at Israeli citizens by Hamas.”
Gaza’s Hamas rulers reacted angrily to the boat’s interception, with spokesman Taher al-Nunu angrily denouncing Israel’s “Zionist piracy” and blaming the U.N. for not punishing the Jewish state over its deadly raid on a six-vessel flotilla that set sail in May 2010, led by the Mavi Marmara.
Nine Turkish activists died in the bloody confrontation, prompting a wave of global criticism and a diplomatic crisis between Israel and Turkey.
“This is a new act of Zionist piracy and the U.N. bears part of the blame because of its failure to punish Israel for its crimes against the Marmara, which encouraged it to act in this aggressive and illegal way,” Nunu told AFP.