Yitzhak "Ike" Ahronovitch, 86, the captain of the Exodus ship whose attempt to take Holocaust survivors to Palestine built support for Israel's founding, died yesterday in northern Israel after a long illness, his daughter Ella said.

The Exodus 1947 ship left France in July 1947 carrying more than 4,500 people - most of them Holocaust survivors and other displaced Jews - in a secret effort to reach Palestine. At the time, Britain controlled Palestine and was limiting the immigration of Jews.

The British navy seized the vessel off Palestine's shores, and after a battle on board that left three people dead, turned the ship and its passengers back to Europe, where the refugees were forced to disembark in Germany.

The ship's ordeal was reported worldwide, garnering sympathy for the refugees, especially because they were taken to Germany, where the Nazi murder of six million Jews during World War II originated.

It inspired a fictionalized account by American writer Leon Uris and a classic 1960 film directed by Otto Preminger and starring Paul Newman.

Newman's character was patterned after Yossi Harel, who commanded the Exodus mission as a leader of the Haganah pre-state Jewish armed force. Harel died last year.

Mr. Ahronovitch, who was nicknamed Ike, captained the ship. His daughter said the experience remained a pivotal part of his life for years afterward.

"It was one of the most important things of his life. He wasn't a big storyteller, but he'd happily tell schoolchildren about it," she said. "The Exodus influenced him and his friends deeply. Those were the days that defined them and as far as they were concerned defined the character of this country." - AP