Israeli navy surrounds Gaza-bound French yacht
Israeli warships on Tuesday surrounded a French yacht carrying pro-Palestinian activists as they neared the coast of Gaza in a bid to breach the Israeli blockade, an organiser told AFP.
Organisers said Israeli navy vessels had surrounded the Dignite/Al Karama in international waters, some 40 nautical miles off the Gaza shoreline, at around 0630 GMT and all communications were cut shortly afterwards.
News that Israel had stopped the ship was roundly denounced by Gaza's Hamas rulers, who decried it as "a new act of Zionist piracy."
"The boat is surrounded by at least three Israeli ships and since 9:06 am (0706 GMT) all the communications have been jammed. We can't get in touch with them by phone or by Internet," French organiser Julien Rivoire told AFP by phone from Paris.
In a separate statement, the organisers urged the French government "to take its responsibilities and to protect the passengers, and to call on Israel not resort to violence."
The Israeli military confirmed it had made contact with the boat, which is carrying 16 people, including three crew members and three journalists.
"The Israel navy is currently in a dialogue with the activists on board the Al Karama in an attempt to dissuade them from continuing on their route into an area under a maritime security blockade," a statement said.
"The Israel navy will allow the organisers and passengers to re-route at any point, prior to the boarding of Israel navy soldiers."
Activists on board the ship were told they will not be allowed to reach Gaza under any circumstances and advised to change course for the Egyptian port of El-Arish, an Israeli military source told AFP.
"They contacted the boat and said: 'We won't let you reach Gaza under any circumstances, but you can head for El-Arish if you want,'" he quoted the naval commandos as saying.
Earlier on Tuesday, activists on board the ship had tweeted via @BateauGazaFr that the Dignite/Al Karama was heading for Gaza after spending the night anchored at sea.
"We're cleaning ourselves up a little bit before arriving. Morale here is like the sky and sea -- very good," wrote French activists on board, adding in English: "Gaza, off we go, stay connected!!!"
The yacht had set sail from the Greek island of Kastellorizo on Saturday evening following a troubled stay in Greece, after Athens imposed a ban on the departure of any ships involved in the flotilla.
It headed for Gaza despite Israeli warnings that it would intercept the ship -- the only boat remaining from a 10-vessel flotilla that had been due to sail for Gaza at the end of June.
Israel has repeatedly warned it would not allow any boats to reach the Palestinian territory in violation of its naval blockade on Gaza, which was first imposed in 2006 after militants there snatched an Israeli soldier.
"If this boat is on its way to Gaza, which is a breach of international maritime law, and tries a provocative act -- yes, we shall intercept it," Israeli deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon said on Monday.
In Gaza, Hamas spokesman Taher al-Nunu angrily denounced Israel's "Zionist piracy" and blamed the United Nations for not punishing Israel over its raid on the Mavi Marmara, the lead ship of a six-vessel flotilla heading for Gaza in May 2010, which ended with the deaths of nine Turkish activists.
"This is a new act of Zionist piracy and the United Nations bears part of the responsibility because of its failure to punish Israel for its crimes against the Marmara, which encouraged it to continue to act in this aggressive and illegal way," he told AFP.
"The international community must now take a clear stand on whether the siege on Gaza is legal and moral or not... and the answer will certainly be that it is illegal and immoral, which requires a serious stand against Israel that does not involve political hypocrisy and double standards."
Israel insists its blockade is both legal and necessary to prevent Hamas from obtaining funds and weapons in order to attack the Jewish state.
But Thomas Sommer-Houdeville, a French activist on board, told AFP the yacht was carrying nothing but a "symbolic message of peace and hope and love" and that Israel had no reason to intercept it.
© 2011 AFP