ISRAEL: Navy preparing to block flotilla of activists determined to reach Gaza
The eight-ship flotilla is determined to break through the naval blockade and reach Gaza. Israel is just as determined this isn't going to happen. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said Friday that the aid convoy was violent propaganda and that "Israel will not allow its sovereignty to be threatened in any way, in any place -- land, air or sea."
What might become a standoff at sea will have been preceded by a standoff of narratives via the Internet and media, which ultimately will declare the winner of the duel. Meanwhile, there seemed to be a ghost in the machinery -- technical problems held up one of the boats taking part in the sail, resulting in a delay. Greta Berlin of Free Gaza told Israeli media the flotilla's departure was postponed until Saturday morning in an effort to avoid a late-night encounter with the navy. Israeli TV reported Friday evening that the navy was setting out in a few hours anyway.
(To see live broadcasts from the ships, go to livestream.com (above) and for other videos and uploads to witnessgaza.com. Enjoy the live broadcast while it lasts; Israel intends to use screening to prevent live broadcasts of interception.)
Israel's efforts to dispel concerns of humanitarian crisis in Gaza are vigorous -- and are being vigorously challenged by many. Likewise, diplomatic attempts to block the ships at the ports of departure have been unsuccessful, although after contacts with top Israeli officials, Cyprus announced it would not allow vessels to use its ports or enter its territorial waters. Israel welcomed the news, but many believe Cypriot's thumbs-down was more for Turkey, a prominent player in the campaign, than the flotilla and its cause.
Gaza is awaiting the ships. If Israel prevents them from reaching the strip, widespread protests will not be contained to Gaza and will be held outside Israeli diplomatic missions around the world, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said Thursday, according to Israeli media.The navy is prepared. "We have a mission to accomplish and we will accomplish it," said navy commander Major-General Eliezer Marom, who wished the troops good luck. Watch his briefing below:
According to Israel radio Friday morning, this is how the events to come will proceed: Israel has declared a 20-mile exclusion zone off of Gaza. The ships will be contacted at different ranges, receive timely and orderly warnings, be escorted by navy ships and reminded they are barred from entry. If they try to enter the 20-mile no-go zone, naval commandos will take over the vessel either by boat or chopper. Dogs from the army's canine unit will sniff out any explosives and the ships will be taken to the port of Ashdod.
The passengers will be checked by police as well as the ministry of interior, which oversees immigration issues and entry permits. A passenger compound has been set up at the port, including a tent for immigration authorities and another for screening equipment. Activists will be asked to sign a restraining order of sorts, agreeing to stay away. Plane tickets are on the house for those who sign, said Israeli reports. Those who won't will be arrested and taken to jail -- if found in competent health conditions by the on-site doctor.
It's a complex affair, but it shouldn't be too difficult, Zeev Yanovsky, a former navy commander of the Ashdod area told the radio. The navy is well-trained, they know their business -- at night, too. He believes the navy will do it well, without violence, and "uphold Israel's sovereignty."
Israel's navy has been involved in high-profile takeovers before, like that of the "Francop," an Iranian weapons ship that commandos took over 100 miles off the coast of Israel last year. But it has also had encounters of the civilians-meet-army kind before, as some of the activists aboard the flotilla know from experience, like Berlin of Free Gaza and Huwaida Arraf.
The Free Gaza movement launched eight break-the-siege voyages in 2008 and 2009. The first handful of boats landed successfully (those aboard said they'd been tracked by the navy and their communications were jammed), making history as the first international boats to arrive in Gaza in decades and, more notably, making a huge point against Israel's policy. The boats started meeting with trouble around the time of Israel's military operation in Gaza, when Israel lost its patience. One boat was rammed by a navy ship several times before making off for Lebanon, the activists had said.
The eighth voyage was met with a full-blown interception. "The area is closed to all maritime traffic," called out a navy ship. "You are ordered to change your course and leave the area or we will be "forced to take all necessary measures to enforce this blockade including the opening of fire," the navy warned. The "Spirit of Humanity" explained it was carrying unarmed civilians and aid to a population under illegal blockade and that its passengers posed no security threat to warrant shooting. The navy ship went away but returned with backup a bit later. This video ends with the navy speeding towards the activists and doesn't show the commando takeover.
That voyage ended in jail. The fate of this one remains to be seen -- maybe tomorrow, and maybe live too, if it doesn't get jammed.-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem.
Top video: Live broadcasts from a Turkish ship, via livestream.com. Bottom video: Major-General Eliezer Marom, commander of the Israeli navy. Credit: YouTube