World & Nation

Israeli navy intercepts protest vessel headed for Gaza

Los Angeles Times

Israeli naval vessels on Tuesday seized a French-flagged protest vessel with 16 pro-Palestinian passengers as it attempted to break through Israel’s sea blockade of the Gaza Strip.

Israeli officials said the takeover occurred without the kind of violence and bloodshed that erupted more than a year ago when nine Turkish activists taking part in a similar protest flotilla were shot and killed by Israeli commandos who came under attack by passengers as they dropped onto the vessel from military helicopters.

The latest protest ship, called Dignity-Al Karama, was rerouted to Israel’s Ashdod port, where passengers and crew were detained. Israel vowed to 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 they condemned the protest flotilla as a provocation. Following last year’s raid, which led to international criticism of Israel’s use of deadly force, the government relaxed restrictions on the import 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 Islamist 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 flotilla organizers.

Those aboard the seized French yacht included citizens from several European nations and two Israelis, including a journalist from the newspaper Haaretz. Passengers could not be reached for comment, and telephone and Internet service was blocked by Israel.

The vessel is the last remnant of a much-larger flotilla that got underway several months ago, including 15 boats and as many as 1,500 activists, including Americans.

But the flotilla largely ran into problems 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 away 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, Dignity passengers left Greece by declaring they were heading toward Alexandria, Egypt. En route, the captain changed directions and headed to Gaza.