JERUSALEM – Israeli naval commandos on Tuesday seized control of a French ship attempting to break Israel's sea blockade of the Gaza Strip and towed it into port, reporting no resistance during the takeover in international waters.
The takeover was the latest in a series of run-ins on the high seas between the Israeli navy and pro-Palestinian activists trying to breach the blockade. In the most contentious incident, nine Turkish activists were killed in a clash with Israeli commandos last year.
Tuesday's operation at sea was far more subdued than the deadly clash last year. The navy intercepted the "Dignity al-Karama" some 40 miles off the coast and boarded the ship without incident after the crew ignored calls to change course.
"The takeover was orderly and done with restraint," the navy's deputy commander, Brig. Gen. Rani Ben-Yehudah told reporters at the southern Israeli port of Ashdod. "Nobody was hurt and the ship wasn't damaged."
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 says is a measure to prevent arms smuggling to Gaza's ruling Hamas militant group.
The boat was not carrying aid supplies.
The white boat was taken to the port in Ashdod, where foreign activists were to be questioned and then deported "to their countries of origin as soon as possible," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor.
In Paris, a spokeswoman for the organizers said the group had no contact with the ship's passengers.
"We have reasserted our request for the French authorities to be very firm in order to protect and repatriate as soon as possible our fellow citizens but also all the members of the Flotilla," said Julien Rivoire, a spokesman for A French boat for Gaza.
French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said his government advised activists not to take part in the flotilla because such activities "can only reinforce tensions." He also said the Gaza blockade must be lifted.
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.
There have been charges that Israel's seizure of boats on the high seas is piracy and contrary to international law. Israel claims it has the right to enforce a quarantine on Gaza to prevent weapons from reaching the territory's militant Hamas rulers, and many international law experts have backed up Israel's contention.
In a text message sent to reporters, the Hamas government in Gaza condemned the seizure of the boat.
Israel imposed the embargo in 2007 after Hamas, an Iranian-backed militant group dedicated to Israel's destruction, seized control of Gaza.
Critics say the blockade has failed to weaken the group and instead has hurt the territory's economy, collectively punishing its 1.6 million people.
Israel withdrew its forces and settlers from Gaza in 2005, but it continues to control most border crossings, as well as its coastline and airspace.
The Israeli military released video footage of what it said was Tuesday's takeover. It showed several soldiers on board the Dignity al-Karama as a pair of navy boats bobbed in the water nearby. The military said the operation went smoothly, and soldiers gave the activists water and snacks.
With the land blockade greatly eased in he wake of the clash with the Turkish flotilla, large amounts of consumer goods now flow into Gaza. But restrictions remain on importing construction materials, which are sorely needed to repair damage caused by an Israeli military offensive two years ago. Israel says items like metal, cement and glass could be diverted for military purposes, and has approved individual construction projects in coordination with the international community.
Despite the restrictions, builders in Gaza under Hamas supervision constructed a new shopping mall that was opened for business Tuesday in Rimal, an upscale neighborhood in Gaza City.
The $4 million, three-story mall includes only the second escalator in the territory and a tiny movie theater, the first in Gaza since militants burned down movie houses in the 1980s. The new one has not opened yet.
Palmor said Israel welcomes development in Gaza, adding that the opening of the mall "speaks for the real economic situation in Gaza."