ASHDOD, Israel (Reuters) - The Israeli navy seized a French yacht carrying pro-Palestinian activists heading for the blockaded Gaza Strip on Tuesday and forced it to go to Israel’s Ashdod port.
Rear Admiral Rani Ben-Yehuda, Deputy Commander of Israel’s navy, said 16 people, including two crew members, were brought to Israel after commandos boarded the “Dignite-Al-Karama” yacht in international waters in the eastern Mediterranean.
“The takeover was restrained and controlled without any injuries,” Ben-Yehuda told reporters.
The yacht had declared an Egyptian port as its destination when it left Greek waters on Sunday, but sailed toward the Palestinian enclave, which is ruled by the Islamist Hamas movement.
It had planned to sail to Gaza as part of a flotilla carrying activists and aid, but other vessels were prevented from sailing after docking in Greece. [ID:nLDE76H0Y0] Activists accused the Greek government of intervening on Israel’s side.
“In accordance with government directives, after all diplomatic channels had been exhausted and continuous calls to the vessel had been ignored, (Israeli marines) boarded the Al-Karama in an effort to stop it from breaking the maritime security blockade on the Gaza Strip,” a military statement said.
Boarding was necessary because those on the yacht refused to obey instructions to go to Ashdod, some 20 km (12 miles) northeast of the Gaza Strip, the statement said.
On arrival, all the passengers would be questioned and the foreigners would face deportation, said a spokeswoman for Israel’s Population and Migration Authority. The Israeli passengers would be handled by the police, she said.
At least two of the passengers were of Israeli origin: activist Dror Feiler and Haaretz newspaper reporter Amira Hass.
The activist’s website lists 16 people who were aboard the yacht, though the group said earlier 17 were expected to travel.
Hamas spokesman Ismail Rudwan said the Israeli action was “piracy, a war crime and a violation of the principles of human rights.”
Israel, whose marines killed nine Turkish activists when violence erupted as they stormed a Gaza-bound flotilla in the Mediterranean last year, has vowed to prevent any breach of a blockade it deems necessary to stop arms from reaching Gaza.
Palestinians and their supporters consider the Gaza blockade illegal and say it stunts the economic development of the territory, most of whose 1.5 million residents rely on aid to survive.
Additional reporting by Ori Lewis in Jerusalem and Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza, Editing by Ralph Gowling