Israel’s security Cabinet yesterday ordered the navy to stop an international aid flotilla from breaching a naval blockade on the Gaza Strip, but to avoid clashes with activists on board.
“Members of the [security] cabinet decided today following a debate on the flotilla that the state of Israel will be determined in stopping the flotilla’s arrival in Gaza,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said in a statement.
However, 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.
Israeli Vice Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon also said ministers had decided to rethink 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. On Sunday, ministers in the forum were told of the military’s preparations for the 10-ship convoy, which is expected to set sail from Greece later this week.
“Yesterday, the ministers decided not to allow the ships to anchor in the Gaza Strip, although they will be allowed to unload their cargo at [the Israeli port] of Ashdod or the Egyptian port of El-Arish,” Israeli army radio said. “If no weapons or ammunition are found, the cargo will be transferred in its entirety to Gaza.”
Public radio said Cairo had already agreed to allow the ships to dock at El-Arish, a Mediterranean port about 50km west of Egypt’s border with Gaza.
The free-distribution daily Israel Hayom, considered close to Netanyahu, quoted navy chief Eliezer Marom as telling ministers that his men were better prepared than they were in May last year, when marine commandos stormed the lead ship of a previous flotilla, killing nine Turks.
“Our forces are ready to stop the flotilla and not to allow the ships to reach Gaza,” an unnamed political source told the paper.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and several international leaders have urged the flotilla not to set sail, and Washington has warned US nationals not to join the attempt to break the embargo.
About 350 pro-Palestinian activists from 22 countries are set to join the “Freedom Flotilla II,” which is expected to comprise about 10 vessels.
Two ships, the Tahrir and the Audacity of Hope, are docked in Athens, where the harbormaster has banned the latter from leaving port until its seaworthiness is established. Other ships, including the Irish ship Saoirse, have set sail from European ports. The ships are expected to meet in the Mediterranean before approaching Gaza.
A Dutch-Italian boat will carry three members of the European Parliament and an Israeli lawmaker. Passengers on the Audacity of Hope include author Alice Walker and Hedy Epstein, an 87-year-old Holocaust survivor.
Passengers have been undergoing training in non-violent resistance. They have been provided with T-shirts with the message “Unarmed Civilian.”
On Sunday, Israel warned journalists, a minority of the passengers, not to travel with the flotilla.
In a letter to editors, Oren Helman, the director of the government press office, wrote that the flotilla had been organized by Western and Islamist extremists and journalists who joined the flotilla would be breaking Israeli law and would be banned from Israel for 10 years, as well as face confiscation of equipment and other measures.