JERUSALEM // Israeli naval commandos seized control of a French ship attempting to break Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip yesterday, reporting no resistance during the takeover in international waters.
The navy boarded the vessel after the pro-Palestinian activists on board had ignored calls to change course.
The military had warned it would stop any attempt to break the sea blockade of Gaza, which Israel imposed four years ago in what it claims is a measure to prevent arms smuggling to Hamas.
It said the ship, the Dignity Al Karama, would be taken to a southern Israeli port, Ashdod. The international passengers are likely to face deportation.
Last year, Israeli naval commandos clashed with activists on a Turkish ship trying to reach Gaza, killing nine Turkish activists. Both sides have said they acted in self defence.
The deadly clash drew harsh international criticism, forcing Israel to ease its land blockade of Gaza. But the naval embargo has remained intact.
Since the May 2010 takeover, the navy has intercepted two blockade-busting boats without incident. But it had been preparing for months for the arrival of a new flotilla, saying it had adopted new tactics in hopes of avoiding bloodshed.
The Dignity Al Karama was the only ship remaining from a larger protest flotilla that had hoped to sail weeks ago but was blocked by Greek authorities.
The France-based Platform Palestine group, one of the organisers, said the Israeli takeover "clearly shows the military logic of Israeli politics, which only speaks the language of force". It said it had no contact with anyone on the boat.
In a text message sent to reporters, the Hamas government in Gaza condemned the seizing of the boat.
Sixteen people, including pro-Palestinian activists from France, Canada and Sweden, journalists and three crew members, were aboard the French-based ship. They have said they had no aid on board and that their mission was meant to make a "political statement" against the Israeli blockade.
A France-based spokesman for a group called "A French Boat for Gaza", Maxime Guimberteau, said he had been in contact with activists aboard the ship earlier yesterday and they told him that four Israeli navy ships had surrounded the ship.
He said the vessel was about 65 kilometres off Gaza in international waters and that his conversation with the boat had been cut off.
Israel imposed the embargo in 2007 after Hamas won an election and took control of Gaza. While Israel has said that the blockade prevents weapons from reaching militants, critics claim its actual aim was to weaken the Palestinian territory's economy, collectively punishing its 1.6 million people.
With the land blockade greatly eased, large amounts of consumer goods now flow into Gaza. But restrictions remain on the entrance of construction materials, which are sorely needed to repair damage caused by an Israeli military offensive two years ago.
Israel has said that items like metal, cement and glass could be diverted for military purposes, and has approved individual construction projects in coordination with the international community.
* Associated Press