Middle East

Flotilla activists determined to defy Israeli ban to reach Gaza

JERUSALEM/ATHENS: Pro-Palestinian activists from 22 countries plan to set sail in an international flotilla for Gaza from the coast of Crete, organizers said Monday, despite Israel’s Security Cabinet ordering the navy to stop the flotilla from reaching the Gaza Strip.

Nine or 10 boats should meet up in the Libyan Gulf Thursday or Friday, Vaguelis Pissias, one of the Greek organizers, said at a press conference with representatives from the international organizations involved.

“We really hope that despite the pressure from Israel and other countries, the Greek authorities are not going to stop us leaving,” he added.

Israel’s Security Cabinet ordered its marines Sunday to prepare to stop the international flotilla from entering Gaza, but said they should avoid confrontation with the activists on board.

“Members of the [Security] Cabinet decided today [Monday] following a debate on the flotilla that the state of Israel will be determined in stopping the flotilla’s arrival in Gaza,” Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said in a statement.

But forces would be ordered to do so “with minimal confrontation, as far as possible, with those on board the ships,” it said without giving further details.

Vice Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon also said ministers had reversed a threat to punish foreign journalists participating in the convoy by barring them from entering Israel for up to 10 years.

“The prime minister heard about the decision in the media, like I did, and was surprised by it. We are going to study the issue and reconsider the decision,” Yaalon told public radio.

The closed-door meeting was the second session on the flotilla in as many days.

Ministers in the forum were briefed Sunday on the military’s preparations for the 10-ship convoy which is expected to set sail from Greece later this week.

During the meeting, ministers decided not to allow the ships to anchor in Gaza, although they would be allowed to unload their cargo at the Israeli port of Ashdod or Egypt’s Al-Arish port for inspections, media reports said.

If no weapons or ammunition were found, the cargo would be transferred to the Gaza Strip.

Public radio said Cairo had already agreed to allow the ships to dock at Al-Arish which lies some 50 kilometers west of the Gaza border.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and several international leaders have urged the flotilla not to set sail, and Washington has warned U.S. nationals not to join the attempt to break the Israeli embargo.

A similar operation in May last year ended in violence when Israeli commandos seized the flotilla’s flagship, the Mavi Marmara, leaving nine dead.

This year, French, Italian, Irish, Spanish, Canadian and American boats plan to take part in the flotilla, as well as a Greek, Swedish and Norwegian ship and two cargo vessels, one of which has been organized by Palestinian refugees.

Several of the boats taking part – including two cargo ships carrying 3 thousand tons of aid such as medicines and cement – will set off from Greek ports, while others plan to join them out at sea, organizers said.

“Israel can’t tell European countries which boats can leave or not,” said Thomas Sommer-Houdeville, a representative for the French ship from the “A Boat for Gaza” group.

Ann Wright, a member of the U.S. delegation on the Audacity of Hope boat, said: “We are here to defy U.S. and Israeli policy … and resist Israel’s diplomatic efforts to stop the flotilla.” 

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 28, 2011, on page 8.

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