Israel surrounds Gaza-bound boat

Israeli warships on Tuesday surrounded a French boat carrying pro-Palestinian activists as they neared the coast of Gaza in a bid to breach the Israeli blockade, an organiser told AFP.

world Updated: Jul 19, 2011 14:41 IST

Israeli warships on Tuesday surrounded a French boat carrying pro-Palestinian activists as they neared the coast of Gaza in a bid to breach the Israeli blockade, an organiser told AFP.

The French-flagged yacht Dignite/Al Karama was surrounded by least three Israeli navy ships some 40 miles off the coast of Gaza, Julien Rivoire told AFP by phone from Paris.

"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," he said.

The Israeli military issued a statement confirming that it had made contact with the boat, which is carrying 16 people, including three crew members and three journalists.

"A short while ago, initial contact was made between the Israel navy and the lone vessel Al Karama," the statement said.

"The Israel navy notified the Al Karama that it is on a route leading to an area under a maritime security blockade off the coast of Gaza, and reminded them any supplies they may have on board may be transferred, legally, through the existing land crossings and the Ashdod port."

Organisers said the Israeli navy had surrounded the boat some 40 nautical miles off the Gaza coast.

"From 8:30 am (0630 GMT) several Israeli military boats surrounded the Dignite/Al Karama while it was in international waters some 40 miles from Gaza; 45 minutes later, all communications were cut," they said in a statement emailed to AFP.

"We call on the French government to take its responsibilities and to protect the passengers, and to call on Israel not resort to violence."

Earlier on Tuesday, Rivoire told AFP the boat was not expected to reach Gaza before noon (0900 GMT).

"The boat, which is moving slowly in a calm sea, should arrive in around five or six hours, which would be around midday, at the Gaza coast," he said.

Activists on board the ship tweeting in both French and English at @BateauGazaFr, had earlier announced 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 set sail for Gaza after a night anchored at sea, despite Israeli warnings that it would intercept the vessel -- the only boat remaining from a flotilla of 10 ships which had been due to sail for Gaza at the end of June.

The Dignite/Al Karama set sail on Saturday from the Greek island of Kastellorizo following a troubled stay in Greece, after Athens imposed a ban on the departure of any ships involved in the flotilla.

Israel has said it will 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 told reporters in Jerusalem on Monday.

Israel maintains that its blockade of Gaza is legal and necessary to prevent the Hamas militant group that controls the territory from obtaining weapons and funds.

But speaking to AFP on Monday evening, Thomas Sommer-Houdeville, a French activist on board, said the yacht was only carrying a "symbolic message of peace and hope and love" and that Israel had no reason to intercept it.

"We hope that they will not, we don't have a plan but we have a peaceful humanitarian mission. We are a peaceful boat flying a French flag."

First Published: Jul 19, 2011 14:32 IST