Israel intercepts sole remnant of flotilla heading for Gaza with first-hand account of boarding

Israel intercepts sole remnant of flotilla heading for Gaza

Elite naval troops take control of the Dignite-Al Karame after it refuses to heed calls to change course.

By Amira Hass and Anshel Pfeffer

The Israel Navy on Tuesday intercepted the last remaining member of a flotilla of boats which had intended to reach the Gaza Strip, after it refused to obey an Israeli demand to change course as it sailed for a Gaza port.

Dignite-Al Karame - IDF Spokesperson - July 19, 2011 The French yacht Dignite-Al Karame heading for Gaza, July 19, 2011.
Photo by: IDF Spokesperson

Elite troops from Israel’s Shayetet 13 naval commando unit boarded the French yacht Dignite-Al Karame minutes after Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Benny Gantz issued the order to intercept. The commandos quickly took control of the vessel, with no resistance from those aboard.

“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 Karame in an effort to stop it from breaking the maritime security blockade on the Gaza Strip,” a military statement said.

The Israel Navy began trailing the Karame while it was some 50 miles from Gaza. The boat was asked to state its final destination and disclose if there were any weapons onboard. One of the group of Greek activists on the ship told the Navy that there were no weapons, and that they were heading to Gaza port.

An IDF official confirmed that the Israel Navy contacted the yacht, and warned it that it is nearing a blockaded area. Defense establishment sources stressed that they would not allow any kind of vessels to dock in the Gaza Strip, so any ship trying to break the blockade would be intercepted.

Following the rapid takeover, the vessel was directed to Ashdod port. There the passengers were to be taken into custody and dealt with by immigration authorities.

The IDF spokesperson stressed that the order to intercept the ship was issued only after the passengers repeatedly refused to answer the demands of the navy or to change course from Gaza. According to the IDF spokesperson, none of the passengers were hurt and IDF soldiers offered the passengers food and beverages once the boat had been intercepted.

Greta Berlin of the Free Gaza Movement said the Dignite-Al Karame had previously declared Alexandria, Egypt, as its destination so it could slip out of Greece, and then changed its route to Gaza. This, she said, was a legal act.

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Sailing on a bucket, surrounded by commandos

Haaretz writer returns to Israel after 26 days with Gaza-bound pro-Palestinian activists.

By Amira Hass   Published 03:11 20.07.11   Latest update 03:11 20.07.11

Three missile ships and seven commando boats were sent to take over the tub known as the Dignite Al Karame yesterday, about 50 nautical miles from the shore.

At least 150 soldiers were sent to sea early in the morning to prevent the 10 civilian activists, the three crew members and the three journalists on the “freedom flotilla” from reaching Gaza’s port.

Flotilla - IDF spokesperson - July 19, 2011

Activists after commando units took over the ship, July 19, 2011

Photo by: IDF spokesperson

http://c5.zedo.com/jsc/c5/ff2.html?n=1462;c=1;d=9;w=300;h=250

For an hour yesterday, the activists thought the navy might have given up its expensive mission to intercept them. They imagined a different, non-violent ending to their voyage, which began in Corsica on June 25, and continued into international waters on Saturday from the Greek island of Kastellorizo.

On Monday, the activists and the crew decided to drop anchor about 80 nautical miles from the shore so that if they were intercepted, it would be during the day.

On Tuesday morning, the ship weighed anchor and set off again.

Around 10 A.M., an Israeli navy vessel appeared to the north. The Karame’s radio began to crackle: “This is the Israeli navy. What is your destination?”

“Gaza port.”

Permission denied, the voice said.

Just then, communication was cut off. At about 1 P.M., a few commando boats sped toward the Karame from the west. From the south and north, three missile boats appeared.

We were all wearing our bright orange life jackets. The eight people below deck looked like cartoon characters.

But what approached was no joke. Two long, greenish missile boats with commandos on board, black masks hiding their faces, aiming all sorts of weapons at the orange-clad figures.

The commando boats came closer; alongside them were two gray inflatable rubber boats.

Later, three more appeared.

Israeli expatriate Dror Feiler, now a Swedish citizen, shouted in Hebrew: “Stop pointing your guns at us, we’re unarmed. He played a tune he had composed, with Jewish cantorial motifs, on his saxophone.

Just as he stopped playing, the commando boats began to slow down and pull back. The activists joked that the tune had done the job.

Around 2 P.M., seven commando boats came within a few meters of the yacht on both sides.

The water cannons were aimed straight at the deck. The rubber boats also came closer, and the Karame’s crew began to come down wet from the upper deck. The engine stopped and the soldiers, with their black masks and their pointed guns, ordered everyone into the cabin.

We won’t hurt you if you obey, someone said. The activists were crowded into the cabin, and the deck filled up with masked men who ordered them one by one into the rubber vessels.

The masked men extended their hands and said calming things like “hold my hand; here, let me move your bag for you.” We had hardly gotten onto the rubber boat, which had Border Police markings, when we were given water. The masked soldiers on the other boats were busy taking pictures of each humanitarian act.

From the rubber boats, we were taken onto the huge missile boat Kidon, among the missiles – obviously intended for Gaza – and soldiers whose faces were not masked.

Later we were taken down to airless cabins. Three or four young men guarded us. They were kind; they brought us water and fruit. Someone checked our pulses. Someone asked whether anyone was in pain. That was the extent of the medical exam.

Four hours later, when we arrived in Ashdod, our heads ached from the suffocating cabins.

At about 7 P.M. we stepped onto the quay at Ashdod. Masses of soldiers and a few people in civilian clothes engulfed us. People were taken to their luggage.

This is where we parted ways: As an Israeli and a journalist, I was taken aside and released after my passport was stamped. The Karame’s other 15 passengers were arrested and were not allowed to see their lawyers.

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