Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Israeli navy halts French yacht trying to breach Gaza blockade

JERUSALEM - Israeli naval forces boarded a French yacht off the Gaza coast yesterday as the yacht tried to breach the Israeli maritime blockade of the Palestinian enclave. The forces met no resistance, Israeli military officials said, and steered the yacht toward the Israeli port of Ashdod.

The yacht is a remnant of an international flotilla that had planned to challenge the blockade last month but was mostly thwarted.
The flotilla organizers had wanted to mark a year since the last flotilla, an attempt to reach Gaza that ended in bloodshed, and to highlight the restrictions on the movement of people and goods in and out of Gaza. Israel says its blockade is essential to prevent the smuggling of weapons into Gaza, which is run by Hamas, the Islamic militant group. The naval blockade was formally imposed in early 2009 during Israel’s military offensive in Gaza.
In May 2010, Israeli naval commandos met with resistance when they boarded a large Turkish passenger vessel trying to breach the blockade, and they fatally shot nine activists on the ship. The episode led to intense international pressure on Israel to ease its restrictions on Gaza.
The amount and variety of goods allowed into the enclave over land crossings have increased significantly, and Egypt reopened the Rafah passenger crossing on its border with Gaza. But the capacity of the crossing is limited; there are currently 23,000 Palestinians on a waiting list to leave Gaza by way of Rafah, said Gisha, an Israeli advocacy group that focuses on freedom of movement for Palestinians. The export of goods has also been severely limited to a small amount of agricultural produce.
The latest flotilla, which organizers had hoped would include up to 10 vessels and some 300 passengers, was beset by problems from the outset. Israel worked intensely at the diplomatic level to stymie the operation, and most of the vessels in the flotilla were prevented from leaving Greek ports by Greek authorities. Members of the flotilla also said two of the vessels were sabotaged.
The lone yacht that managed to set out for Gaza this week, the Dignite-Al Karama, left the French island of Corsica with 16 passengers and crew on board. Among them were an honorary member of the French Parliament, a crew from Al Jazeera, and an Israeli journalist.
The French-flagged yacht anchored in international waters before the last leg of its voyage Monday, according to organizers from the Free Gaza Movement.
The boat represented “the steadfastness and determination of the flotilla movement to sail until the blockade is broken,’’ the group said in a statement issued hours before the yacht was taken over.
Yesterday morning, the Israeli navy made contact with the yacht and requested that it change course, a call that the vessel ignored. The Israeli military released a recording of a radio exchange with someone on board, who said the vessel was a private cruiser boat, that it carried no cargo, and that its final destination was Gaza.
Brigadier General Yoav Mordechai, the Israeli military’s chief spokesman, said that the captain had lied to Greek authorities during its voyage, telling them that the yacht’s destination was Egypt.
“After dialogue reached a dead end, naval commandos boarded the yacht and took control of it without facing resistance,’’ Mordechai said.

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