JERUSALEM (Reuters) - The Israeli navy on Tuesday seized a French yacht carrying pro-Palestinian activists heading for the blockaded Gaza Strip and forced it to go to Israel’s Ashdod port, a military spokeswoman said.
“I can confirm that the yacht has been boarded and that everything went smoothly, there were no casualties,” the spokeswoman said after marines boarded the “Dignite-Al-Karama” yacht in the eastern Mediterranean.
Chief military spokesman Brigadier-General Yoav Mordechai said the passengers were transferred from the yacht to one of the warships sent to intercept it and were en route to Ashdod.
The 17-passenger yacht had declared an Egyptian port as its destination when it left Greek waters on Sunday, but sailed towards the Palestinian enclave, aiming to arrive on Tuesday.
It had planned to sail to Islamist Hamas-ruled Gaza as part of a flotilla carrying activists and aid, but other vessels were prevented from sailing after docking in Greece. 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, IDF (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, the statement said.
The passengers would be questioned by police and some may face deportation when they arrive a Ashdod, some 20 kms (12 miles) northeast of the Gaza Strip, it said.
At least two of the passengers on board were of Israeli origin: one activist Dror Feiler, and Haaretz newspaper reporter Amira Hass.
Hamas condemned the seizure with spokesman Ismail Rudwan describing it as “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, had vowed to stop any new attempt to breach a naval blockade it deems necessary to prevent 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 Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza; Editing by Louise Ireland