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ISRAEL: Officials brace for the Gaza flotilla, with the navy — and PR

May 26, 2010 |  8:16 pm

Nine ships sailing from various destinations, including Ireland, Turkey and Greece, are headed toward a Mediterranean meeting point from which they will set sail for the Gaza Strip. Carrying 700-800 passengers, including members of parliament from Europe, the so-called Freedom Flotilla intends to break through the Israeli naval blockade of Gaza and deliver 10,000 tons of aid.

Huwaida Arraf of Free Gaza says the campaign will challenge Israel's blockade, which she called illegal. Israel's policies vis-a-vis Gaza are criminal and immoral, she said at a port in Crete on Wednesday, "and it's about time the international community broke its silence."  

Israeli Foreign Ministry officials had met with the relevant European ambassadors to ask them to stop the ships. They said they'd do their best. The ships sailed anyway.

A PR battle on the high seas was born.

Israel denies accusations from humanitarian groups about conditions in Gaza. The army has compiled a summary of the blockade measures, detailing the routine transfer of goods and emphasizing that its operations, including the maritime closure, are designed to thwart terrorism and prevent weapons smuggling.

The Foreign Ministry issued a similar report. "The Israeli humanitarian lifeline to Gaza" describes the transfer of more than a million tons of humanitarian supplies to Gaza in the last year and a half. The ministry website also posted an interview with one of its legal experts on the subjects of the naval blockade and aid.

Israel calls the campaign a provocation, designed only to embarrass the country.

"Israel has invited the flotilla organizers to use the land crossings ... however, they're less interested in bringing in aid than promoting their radical agenda and playing into the hands of Hamas provocations," Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said in a video on YouTube and the ministry's website. The organizers have "wrapped themselves in a humanitarian cloak but engage in political propaganda," he said.

Ships are on the move, and so is Israel's approach, which took a sarcastic tone Wednesday when the government media office said it was "pleased" to bring to the attention of the journalists "covering alleged humanitarian difficulties in the Hamas run territory" the menu of the Roots Club and Restaurant in Gaza. "We have been told that the beef stroganoff and cream of spinach soup are highly recommended," read the e-mail to journalists.

The Israeli navy has been instructed to block the ships, taking them over if necessary. A drill on intercepting vessels and detaining passengers was carried out, and soldiers have been instructed to "act sensibly and avoid provocations," it was reported Wednesday. The army says it intends to transfer the aid aboard the ships to Gaza, after security inspections of the cargo.

Haneen Zoaby, an Arab member of the Israeli parliament who is aboard one of the ships, told reporters that she hopes the navy "doesn't do something foolish like fire at us." But she said that even if it does, they are "determined to break the siege."  

And there's an Israeli among the organizers too -- Dror Feiler. 

In an interview with Israel Radio, he said he's considered the various scenarios: "Either they take over our ships and force us to come to Ashdod, or intercept and sink us — or we'll make it to Gaza. If we make it, we will have broken the siege. If they sink us, they will be showing the true face of a country gone insane. And if they force us into Ashdod, then they will be exactly like pirates in the Gulf of Aden . . . they'll be the new pirates of the Mediterranean."

Guy Bechor, a Middle East expert, didn't wait to see how things turn out. All scenarios would be a win for the organizers and for Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who gave his blessing to the sailing, he wrote on his Hebrew-language website a few weeks ago. Bechor suggested Israelis set out with a counter-flotilla and a few accusations of their own. The army denied Israeli protesters permission to approach the international flotilla so the campaign held a one-day protest sail on Saturday, with 30 boats and yachts.

Turkey, whose relations with Israel have soured since the Gaza invasion in 2008-2009, has played a key role in the flotilla campaign, organized by IHH, a Turkish humanitarian organization, among others.  Before the sail, Bechor had a message for Erdogan: "If you want to turn Turkey into an Islamic caliphate, that's your business. Don't use Israel for it."

-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem

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