Jerusalem: Israel is "prepared for the worst" in a showdown with pro-Palestinian activists seeking to breach Israel`s sea blockade of Gaza but still hopes they will drop the plan, a Cabinet minister said on Wednesday.
Information Minister Yuli Edelstein called on organisers to change course and deliver their cargo of medicine and construction materials to Gaza via an Israeli port. They rejected that option on Wednesday.
The 10 ships could sail yet this week, and the voyage would be expected to take several days. Israel has said it will not allow them to reach Gaza. Greece is the flotilla`s base of operations, but activists won`t disclose the exact location of the boats because of security concerns.
Israel has enforced a Gaza border blockade since the Islamic militant group Hamas seized the territory in 2007. Last year, an Israeli raid on a similar flotilla killed nine activists on a Turkish vessel. Each side blamed the other for the violence.
Israel has since eased some Gaza land border restrictions, allowing most consumer goods to enter from Israel.
Edelstein portrayed the flotilla organisers as misguided, arguing that Gaza does not suffer a humanitarian crisis.
A UN official in Gaza disagreed. "We see very little impact on the ground and on the life of the Palestinian refugees living in the Gaza Strip" over the past year, said Milina Shahin. "The humanitarian situation is the same."
Israel continues to limit the import of cement, steel and other construction materials, allowing such shipments only for internationally supervised projects in Gaza. Israel argues that construction materials could be diverted by Hamas for military use.
Most exports from Gaza are still banned.
Major General Eitan Dangot, a military officer in charge of the Gaza border policy, said Israel is trying to increase imports to Gaza.
He said officials are trying to find a way to allow exports of manufactured goods, in addition to the current seasonal shipments of flowers and strawberries, and planned exports of tomatoes and potatoes.
The general said Israel is continuing with its efforts, even though the Gaza-Israel cargo crossing has been targeted by more than 60 rockets and mortar shells from Gaza over the past year.
Edelstein said Israel is not taking any chances with the flotilla this time.
"This is our lesson from last year," he told reporters. "That`s why we are trying to get prepared for the worst."
Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak told Israel`s Channel 2 TV that this year`s flotilla appears more peaceful than last year`s, but "we cannot discount the possibility that there will be a small group of extremists who will use violence, even firearms."