(Updates with comment from Israeli army spokesman in third paragraph, Defense Minister in 12th.)
July 19 (Bloomberg) -- Israeli troops boarded a ship that was trying to breach the country’s blockade of the Gaza Strip after the vessel refused to change course, the army said.
Naval officers told the crew of the Dignite, sailing under a French flag, that they should divert to Israel’s Ashdod port or to Egypt, an Israeli army spokesman said, speaking anonymously according to military regulation. The ship will now be brought to Ashdod, the Israeli army said in a statement. There were no reports of injuries.
“Naval forces boarded the boat, made sure everyone was alright, offered them food and water,” Israeli army spokesman Brigadier General Yoav Mordechai said in an interview on Army Radio. “There was no friction.”
The boat is carrying 10 activists plus crew members, according to the organizers of what was intended to have been a larger flotilla. Greek authorities have forbidden seven of the flotilla’s other vessels from departing its ports, saying they lack proper safety equipment.
A previous flotilla’s attempt to arrive in the Hamas- controlled Gaza Strip by sea ended in violence on May 31 last year when Israeli naval commandos dropped from helicopters onto the deck of the Mavi Marmara, part of the six-boat convoy, and opened fire after the ship refused to stop. Nine Turks were killed. Israel says people on board shot first and attacked soldiers with iron bars, an allegation the passengers denied.
Israeli authorities contacted the Dignite as it sailed off the coast to request its port of destination and cargo. According to a video clip of the exchange posted on YouTube by the military, a sailor asked the ship what its final destination was and was told “Gaza port.”
“In accordance with government directives, after all diplomatic channels had been exhausted and continuous calls to the vessel had been ignored, the navy boarded the ship in an effort to stop it from breaking the maritime security blockade,” the army said in an e-mailed statement.
Passengers will be questioned upon arrival at Israel’s Ashdod port, it added.
The flotilla’s organizers say the blockade is illegal under international law and causes unnecessary hardship for Gaza’s Palestinian population.
The Israeli government says sufficient goods reach Gaza through its border crossings and that it needs the naval blockade to prevent arms smuggling to Hamas, the Islamic movement that is classified as a terrorist organization by Israel, the U.S. and the European Union.
Less than a month after the May 31 confrontation, Israel loosened its land blockade with Gaza with the aim of allowing more food in and keeping weapons and other items with a possible military use out.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said that “concentrated political efforts had succeeded in diminishing the ships in the flotilla,” according to an e-mailed statement from his office today.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu singled out Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou for praise in a July 1 speech for his country’s stance on the flotilla. Political and military ties between Greece and Israel have strengthened in recent years, aided in part by the prospect of their jointly developing natural gas fields discovered off Israel’s shore in the eastern Mediterranean.
Israel’s interest in developing a closer alliance with Greece has also been spurred by the deterioration of its relations with Turkey following the Mavi Mamara clash. Turkey recalled its ambassador after the incident and said it won’t restore full diplomatic ties with Israel until it first receives an official apology and compensation for deaths of Turkish civilians.
Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman said last week that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who repeated the demands in a speech to his parliament earlier this month, is “not serious” about repairing ties with Jerusalem.
--With assistance from Alisa Odenheimer in Jerusalem.
--With assistance by Dahlia Kholaif in Kuwait. Editors: Louis Meixler, Andrew J. Barden, Digby Lidstone.
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