Israelis seize protest yacht as it tries to run Gaza blockade

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The Independent Online

Israeli commandos yesterday boarded and seized control of a yacht carrying pro-Palestinian activists as it tried to defy Israel's naval blockade of the Gaza Strip.

The Israeli navy intercepted the French-flagged vessel without causing any casualties in a carefully executed operation to avoid a repeat of last year's bungled assault on a Gaza-bound aid convoy when troops dropped by helicopter killed nine Turkish activists.

Israeli gunboats surrounded the Dignite al-Karama in international waters as it neared Gaza's coastline around midday yesterday.

After the captain failed to heed orders to turn around, forces boarded the boat, the military said. Activists offered no resistance.

The passengers were transferred to a gunboat, while the Dignite – the last remaining representative of a much larger flotilla grounded in Greece – was towed to Ashdod in Israel. The activists face almost certain deportation.

Although Israel offered to transport any aid from the boat into Gaza, the activists said they had no cargo, and were instead bringing a symbolic message of solidarity to the Palestinians.

Israel, which has condemned the flotilla as a provocation and warned activists it would firmly repel any attempt to breach its blockade, will be relieved at intercepting the vessel uneventfully.

Its deadly confrontation with activists aboard last year's flotilla provoked international outrage and forced Israel into easing its four-year land and naval blockade of Gaza, although many restrictions remained, such as a near-total ban on exports and severe limitations on movement of the 1.6m Palestinians confined to the enclave.

Israel has kept its naval blockade in place, claiming that to ease it would allow the illegal passage of arms to Hamas, the militant Islamist group that governs Gaza.