Israeli gunships head to sea to block flotilla
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Last Updated: Saturday, May 29, 2010, 10:38
Haifa: Israeli gunships headed out to sea on Saturday to stop a flotilla of pro-Palestinian activists from reaching the Gaza Strip, the military said, setting the stage for what could become a dramatic showdown on the high seas.

Israel's foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, said the country was prepared to stop the flotilla "at any cost." He called the aid mission a provocation and urged the international community to show understanding for the tough response.

"We really have all determination and political will to prevent this provocation against us," he said. "I think that we're ready at any cost ... to prevent this provocation."

Israeli military officials have said they will intercept the ships, escort the vessels to shore and give the activists the choice of deportation or going to jail.

The officials say they hope the situation will be resolved peacefully, but they are prepared to use force if necessary. Masked naval commandos have been trained for the mission, and Israel has built a large makeshift detention center in a southern port to process the activists.

The activists, among them a Nobel peace laureate, are trying to draw attention to a 3-year-old Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip _ imposed after Hamas militants violently seized control of the territory. They say they are carrying tons of desperately needed humanitarian aid.

Greta Berlin, one of the organizers of the effort, said a total of seven ships were headed to Gaza, after an eighth vessel suffered a malfunction and had to turn back.

The organizers' website said the flotilla remained off the southern coast of Cyprus, some 250 miles northwest of Gaza, this evening. Berlin said the flotilla would halt under darkness, and resume the journey early Saturday. They were expected to reach Israeli waters possibly later tomorrow, she said.

The ships originally embarked from Turkey, Greece and other European ports.

Israel says the blockade is needed to prevent Hamas, which has fired thousands of rockets into Israel, from rearming.

It rejects claims that a humanitarian crisis is brewing in Gaza, saying it allows more than enough food and medicine into the strip. Critics, however, say the blockade has crushed Gaza's economy, eliminated some 100,000 jobs and prevented the territory from repairing the destruction caused by an Israeli military offensive early last year.

Israel has reached out to its Mediterranean neighbors to stop the flotilla from approaching. Turkey, whose president has harshly condemned Israel's Gaza offensive, has rejected the gesture.


First Published: Saturday, May 29, 2010, 10:38

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